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What on Earth is The Polar Vortex??

Posted at 12:51 PM, Nov 10, 2023

It has been almost ten years since the words "polar vortex" went viral. I remember seeing many people who thought it was just a made-up phrase to strum up interest or concern, but the truth is the polar vortex has always been present; that was just one of the first times it received national attention.

The polar vortex is a large area of low pressure and cold air surrounding the Earth’s poles. It ALWAYS exists near the poles, but impacts us more during the winter.


The term "vortex" refers to the counter-clockwise flow of air that helps keep the colder air near the Poles. Many times during winter in the northern hemisphere, the polar vortex will become displaced and send arctic air southward with the jet stream. This actually occurs fairly regularly during wintertime and is often associated with large outbreaks of Arctic air in the United States. The one that occurred Jan. 2014 is similar to many other cold outbreaks that have happened in the past, including several notable colder outbreaks in 1977, 1982, 1985 and 1989. The truth is, though, we experience displaced polar vortices every winter, but some are not nearly as cold.


The polar vortex is also not at the surface of the Earth. It is thousands of feet above our heads. It is also not confined to the United States. Portions of Europe and Asia also experience cold surges connected to the polar vortex. The polar vortex will not come down and hit your house like a tornado. By itself, the only danger to humans is the magnitude of how cold temperatures will get when the polar vortex expands, sending Arctic air southward into areas that are not typically that cold.

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