A polar vortex is a low-pressure area made up of upper-level winds that circle around the earth’s north and south poles. It is often used as an abbreviation for the term circumpolar vortexes. These massive zones around the poles are known for containing the cold, arctic winds in a defined area. During the change of seasons however, these winds may become less defined as the vortex breaks up, resulting in colder weather extending away from the poles.
So what exactly happens during a polar vortex and where do they come from?
There are two polar vortexes in Earth’s atmosphere: one rotating counterclockwise at the north pole and one rotating clockwise at the south pole.
Their spin, like all other rotating bodies of air and water is due to the Coriolis effect. Located high above the earth's surface in the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere, the polar vortexes cover large masses of cold arctic air.
During the change of seasons, especially colder ones, the polar vortexes tend to weaken and break up into two or more vortexes. The cold winds under the vortexes end up spreading further towards the equator causing colder temperatures in the winter.
Polar Vortex moving down towards North America bringing down cold, arctic winds.
What does this mean for us?
Humans feel the effect of polar vortexes through change in weather and changes in the overall ecosystem. On a short-term scale, polar vortexes tend to bring more snow and colder winds to areas like US, Europe and Asia. The winds may temporarily disrupt human activity around these areas by affecting crop cycles and worsening road conditions.
The true concern is the correlation between unstable polar vortexes and the pressing issue of climate change affecting humanity and its future.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that, “It is not entirely clear, but the decrease in arctic ice and warmer temperatures may suggest more variability between the straight and wavy patterns.”
Based on this observation, a connection is being researched between the warming of the poles and the polar vortexes causing more severe weather in lower latitudes.
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