From the Curiosity Desk
4:22 pm
Tue January 7, 2014

The Polar Vortex Is Nothing New

This image captured by NOAA's GOES-East satellite on Jan. 6, 2014, at 11:01 a.m. EST shows a frontal system that is draped from north to south along the U.S. East Coast. Behind the front lies the clearer skies bitter cold air associated with the polar vor
This image captured by NOAA's GOES-East satellite on Jan. 6, 2014, at 11:01 a.m. EST shows a frontal system that is draped from north to south along the U.S. East Coast. Behind the front lies the clearer skies bitter cold air associated with the polar vortex. Forecasters said some 187 million people in all could feel the effects of the "polar vortex" by the time it spread across the country on Tuesday, Jan. 7. 2013.
Credit AP/NASA

It seems that if there’s one thing on Earth more popular than Downton Abbey right now, it’s the polar vortex. That catchy little two-word phrase is being used to explain the frigid temperatures across much of the United States.

On Twitter, everyone from NPR to Stephen Colbert to the Museum of Fine Arts has jumped on the PV bandwagon.

The polar vortex is "a body of extremely cold, dense air that sets up over the pole and is typically held in place by strong westerly winds that encircle it," according to WGBH science editor Heather Goldstone. 

Think of it like an enormous cyclone of extremely cold air that hovers in the atmosphere over the poles year round (yes, there is one over the south pole, too).

Here in the north, it’s strongest during the winter, when the winds can exceed 100 mph. That kind of speed typically keeps that frigid air locked inside, where it belongs, up in the arctic.

Occasionally, those winds weaken and some of that cold air can come spilling out, as it has this week.

None of this is anything new.

Meteorologist Matt Noyes tweeted that the polar vortex itself has been around for more than a billion years.

The term “polar vortex” has been around for decades, but it spent years relegated to science journals, postdoctoral studies and meteorological society lectures.

That changed in the late 1980s, when the depletion of the ozone layer over the arctic became a hot button issue (pun intended). A search of news articles for “polar vortex” showed that the term started cropping up regularly on the pages of publications like the New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today and The Guardian around 1989. Here’s an example from a May 1992 article in The Boston Globe about the role of chlorofluorocarbon in that ozone depletion:

That is, indeed, the case inside the polar vortex, the whirlpool of cold air that forms over the polar regions in winter. There, Anderson said, 80 percent of ozone loss is caused by chlorine compounds borne by CFCs , which are used in refrigerators, auto air conditioners and other products.

By January of 2005, “polar vortex” had it’s own Wikipedia page – a sure sign that it had truly arrived.

Boston Globe columnist Joanna Weiss even name-checked the polar vortex in a characteristically wry piece about surviving the particularly snowy winter of 2010-2011.

Is this proof that global warming doesn't exist - as right-wing bloggers are triumphantly declaring - or the direct result of rising Arctic temperatures that might soon destroy the Polar Vortex? And either way, how long before my car's undercarriage rusts out?

And the polar vortex isn’t just a local phenomenon. Polar vortices have been observed on Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune, and Venus, too.

Last summer, a NASA spacecraft even spotted one on Saturn’s moon Titan. Once again, the “polar vortex” was making news. From NBC News:

A NASA spacecraft has spied a vortex swirling in the atmosphere high above the south pole of the Saturn moon Titan, hinting that winter may be coming to the huge body's southern reaches…. NASA's Cassini probe photographed the polar vortex — or mass of swirling gas — during a flyby of Titan on June 27.

It wasn't always like this. Back in January 1985, before the 24-hour news cycle and Twitter, a southward shift of the polar vortex similar to the one we are currently experiencing killed at least 126 people in the US, destroyed 90 percent of Florida's citrus crop, and set record-lows across the East Coast.

The cold snap was major news, but it doesn’t appear that the term "polar vortex" was a part of the coverage. The New York Times described the event as the “freeze of the century,” and a “bubble of arctic air.” It never once used the term polar vortex.

But as Shakespeare famously wrote, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

So call it what you like but whatever you do, bundle up. Vortex or no vortex, it’s cold out there.

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