Hype versus truth: 'Polar Vortex'

Hype versus truth: 'Polar Vortex'

One of the most misconstrued terms in the weather enterprise are the words "polar vortex".

It is a term that resonates with many people, especially across the midwestern states, as the winter of 2013-2014 was one of the coldest on record. 

Locally, even with several big blasts of cold air during the winter, 2014 is on track to be a near average year. 

The national media latched onto this term this year to make it seem like it is a brand new occurrence. In actuality, the polar vortex is nothing new and it isn't something that you need to be worried about necessarily. 

THE HYPE: "The polar vortex is heading south to bring extremely cold conditions across the lower 48!"

The polar vortex is a real thing, but not in the sense of what has been displayed over the past year. 

The polar vortex is an ever present gyre in the upper levels of the atmosphere. It's not something that is at the earth's surface. Occasionally, warming temperatures in the stratosphere can cause a small piece of the overall polar vortex to come lower in the atmosphere and can influence surface weather. It isn't unusual for this to happen more than once a year. 

Once the piece of the polar vortex translates down into the atmosphere, it's no longer part of the polar vortex. Typically, we'll refer to it as "a dip in the jet stream" or "a trough of low pressure". Remember, the jet stream drives weather systems around the world and can have dips and kinks that ultimately affect storm tracks and temperatures. 

The piece of the overall polar vortex can direct cold Canadian, Arctic or even Siberian air southward to the United States. It is not something that you can visibly see such a hurricane or a tornado. It also doesn't cause every cold snap, nor is it a product of global warming/cooling.

This is merely a piece of the puzzle of the whole weather and climate equation. So the next time you hear the "super frigid, terrifying polar express vortex storm snowpocalypse" is heading south, just remember that it is really isn't. If it does, the First Alert Weather team will be there to guide you through it.