The Polar Vortex

By Jackson Mabe

In January of this year, the United States was affected by a vicious band of extremely cold weather; this polar vortex struck the Midwest states particularly hard, leaving more than twenty people dead as a direct result and many others afflicted with frostbite. Although the unbelievably frigid temperatures affecting residents of states like Illinois, Michigan, and Iowa are some of the lowest in recorded history for the area, the cold snap we are currently weathering was confusingly caused by global warming working against the vortexes normally concentrated in the North and South poles. While droves of environmentally-conscious communities have been pushing for further regulation to limit our harmful effects on the ozone layer and consequent raising temperatures worldwide for years, perhaps the unfortunately fatal results of this most recent polar snap will result in wider pushes to enhance even more environmentally friendly policies and methods to help our planet.

The Arctic weather currently sweeping through the country has had a massive impact on the abilities of workers and students in the area; countless offices and schools normally accustomed to the cold have been closed for several days, and thousands of flights have been cancelled due to planes being unable to cope with the potential ramifications of temperatures far less than zero (on Thursday, January 31st, several areas in Iowa experienced temperatures measured at fifty below; the United States’ own record is negative eighty in Alaska). In fact, the temperatures in Chicago were low enough to freeze the Chicago River and a large portion of Lake Michigan, with other bodies of water in the region playing host to a hazy vapor resembling smoke from the close contact between warm water and subzero air. At such a numbing climate, frostbite can reportedly occur within five minutes, making the basic task of venturing outside one’s front door a threatening endeavour. Making matters worse, the record-level temperature has led to malfunctioning mechanical equipment and power grids, leaving families without indoor heating; this itself has led to questionable jury-rigged methods of providing warmth to households, like a family of nine in Illinois whose attempt to retain heat with a charcoal grill led to carbon-monoxide poisonings and fortunately only hospitalization instead of death.

Some were not so lucky. The official death toll as of Thursday was twenty-one, from a variety of tragic causes. Several deaths resulted from men and women in Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin being frozen, including an 18-year-old student in his first year at the University of Iowa who was discovered outside near his dorm that later died in the hospital. Other causes include traffic accidents presumably related to frozen and slippery roads, and pneumonia has claimed the lives of several after they had already reentered the safety of their homes. Even short exposure to the bitter temperatures in the Midwest and even parts of the Northeast can be dangerous, so it is vital to reduce exposed skin and stay indoors as much as possible.

One of the most perplexing circumstances surrounding the polar vortex lies in its causation: how can global warming that leads to the raising of temperatures simultaneously result in a polarized colder winter? The answer lies in the atmosphere, where pressure zones exist due to drastic differences in temperature and pressure. Because of the vast difference in temperatures between the poles and the equator during the winter, two quasi-permanent pressure zones exist at the north and south poles with huge masses of cold air trapped underneath. However, as the poles increase in temperature due to global warming and approach a closer stasis to the equator, these pressure zones section themselves apart and become weaker and therefore prone to drifting apart and away from their respective pole. After the vortex housed in the Arctic became extremely weak recently, a warm high pressure zone shoved the cold air further south, resulting in weather normally seen in the North pole rearing its head in the continental United States. The warmer our planet is, the more easily and frequently the poles’ vortexes will splinter and shift, transferring the warm air towards the poles and the cold air towards the equator. It is obviously necessary to limit this process as much as possible by controlling the spread and rapid growth in intensity that global warming has seen in recent centuries, and the best way to limit global warming is by moving away from energy sources that release copious amounts of carbon dioxide. Cleaner alternatives for energy include solar and wind power, both of which have become more efficient and available in recent times.