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Polar Vortex Is Back: Coldest of the Cold En Route to U.S.

The polar vortex is back, and for many suffering through an already frigid winter, the Arctic air barreling into the lower 48 states may be the coldest of the cold yet.

Temperatures may plunge well below zero in the Upper Midwest, and could potentially last as long as three days in some areas. Cities such as Chicago, Minneapolis, and Madison are already enduring extreme cold, with two consecutive days of subzero high temperatures expected. In addition, a rare snow and ice storm is slated to develop along the Gulf Coast on Tuesday and Wednesday. Computer model projections show the potential for more than 6 inches of snow to fall in parts of the Southeast, particularly in Southeast South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina, areas that are not accustomed to such heavy snowfall and ice.

Visualization of surface winds (lines and black arrows) and temperatures (shaded colors) on Monday morning, as the latest Arctic blast swept from the Midwest to the South and East. 
Click image to enlarge. Credit:

The frigid temperatures in the Central and Eastern U.S. come courtesy of a jet stream pattern that has kept the door to the Arctic, which is the Northern Hemisphere’s freezer, wide open, allowing dangerously cold air to repeatedly move southward into the lower 48 states in distinct waves.

As happened in early January, the now infamous polar vortex has something to do with the latest cold snap, with its southernmost extent clipping the northern tier of the U.S.

The persistence of the cold during January has set the month on course to be the second coldest winter month in the contiguous U.S. since December 2000, coming up about a degree shy of the monthly average temperature in January 2011, according to Ryan Maue of WeatherBell Analytics, a private weather forecasting firm.

Of course, blaming this all on the polar vortex isn’t entirely accurate. The true polar vortex exists at upper levels of the atmosphere, and what’s been causing January’s bitter cold — and soon to be February’s — is a result of the interaction between the vortex and events in the more chaotic lower atmosphere.

The polar vortex exists at the upper levels of the atmosphere at and above the typical cruising altitude of commercial jetliners, and is an area of frigid air and relatively low air pressure surrounded by a strong west-to-east jet stream that circles the Arctic during the winter.

When the upper level winds encircling the vortex are strong, the cold air tends to stay locked in the Arctic. But when those winds slow, as has occurred this winter, the polar vortex can wobble and split, with pockets of extremely cold air getting pinched off and shunted southward, into the U.S., Europe, and Asia. According to many computer models, this is likely to happen throughout much of February.

Visualization of wind speed and direction in the lower stratosphere, looking from the top of the Northern Hemisphere down. The polar vortex is highlighted within the black rectangle, with its circulation extending south above the U.S.
Click image to enlarge. Credit:

Ultimately, the distinction between the upper level vortex and its lower level reflections is of interest mainly to meteorologists, since most Americans are more concerned with staying warm than with looking up “polar vortex” in a textbook.

Charts of the middle of the troposphere, which is the layer of the atmosphere where most weather occurs, show that several areas of unusually cold temperatures are currently affecting the U.S. and parts of Europe and Asia, while an unusually mild region stretches from Alaska across the Arctic and extending into northern Siberia.

While the lower 48 states freeze — every state in the contiguous U.S. is expected to see a low temperature at or below 32°F on Tuesday morning — this weather pattern also has a flipside, with unusually mild conditions affecting Alaska and the Western U.S. At 10 p.m. local time on Sunday, it was warmer in Homer, Alaska than anywhere in the contiguous U.S., except for Southern Florida and Southern California. The high temperature in Homer of 55°F broke their all-time monthly high temperature record, according to Weather Underground

On Jan. 27, the temperature in Nome, Alaska reached 51°F, which was not only the warmest temperature on record there for January, but was also the warmest temperature observed at that location between the dates of Oct. 17 and April 9, according to Weather Underground's Chris Burt

On Jan. 25, the headquarters of Denali National Park, Alaska, where Mt. McKinley is located, reached a high temperature of 51°F, which tied the record high temperature for the month of January, according to the National Weather Service.

In Nome, the temperature climbed to 45°F on Jan. 26, which was the second warmest January day there since recordkeeping began in 1907. Numerous daily high temperature marks and records for highest overnight low temperatures have also been set in Alaska, and computer model projections show continued unusual warmth is likely to affect the state for much of February.

Unusually mild conditions have also affected the Western U.S., as the jet stream has steered storms well north of the area into Canada, pumping warm air into the region from the southwest.



For example, Sacramento, Calif., reached 79°F on Jan. 25, breaking the high temperature mark there for the month of January. A monthly temperature record was also broken at Sacramento Executive Airport on the same day.

For the lower 48 states during the period from Dec. 28 to Jan. 26, 32 monthly high temperature records were set or tied along with 12 monthly records for highest overnight low temperature. That compares to 24 monthly records for coldest high temperature, and zero monthly records for the lowest overnight low temperature. There were, however, eight records set or tied for the coldest daytime high temperature.

This data suggests that the extreme cold in the Midwest and East, while noteworthy, may not be as unusual from a historical standpoint as the warmth in the West and Alaska.

Of course, for those in the path of this current Arctic outbreak, that’s of little consolation.


By Tony
on January 27th, 2014

Polar vortex—> Arctic Oscillation

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By Niall
on January 27th, 2014

I have a question, probably better answered by an expert.

If it’s so cold in the southern part of North America because the cold air is there and not in the Arctic, meaning it’s warmer than it should be in the Arctic, what does this mean for sea ice formation in the Arctic Ocean?

What implications does this have for the ongoing melt and the formation and retention of multi-year ice?

What implications does this have for more rapid permafrost thawing and an earlier thaw on the Greenland Ice Sheet? 51F at Denali is, what, over 10C (I have to convert Imperial measurements, because they make no sense to me: sorry)  - well above freezing in January!

Could this be the first indication of a pattern that would throw off all the ice-melt calculations, never mind methane release?

I have a common sense answer (it’s going to make the situation worse), but I could be wrong and nobody seems to be addressing this.

Reply to this comment

By Moses Pippen (SF/CA/94131)
on January 27th, 2014

Here in California, it’s been hot and dry. I heard that the high-pressure system which has been keeping California dry has been contributing to the freezing temperatures in the eastern U.S.

Everyone is hoping that the high-pressure system will break soon.

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By Eric Peterson (Front Royal, VA 22630)
on January 28th, 2014

“Ultimately, the distinction between the upper level vortex and its lower level reflections is of interest mainly to meteorologists, “

Sure, but thanks for explaining it to the rest of us anyway.  It is good to know the details.

“If it’s so cold in the southern part of North America because the cold air is there and not in the Arctic, meaning it’s warmer than it should be in the Arctic, what does this mean for sea ice formation in the Arctic Ocean?”

Don’t know, but the redistribution of heat to the Arctic in winter supports cooling.  That is because the normally cold Arctic does not radiate much heat to space.  When it is warmer it radiates more.  Very simply: with this pattern the planet cools.

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By kermit
on January 30th, 2014

But with a cooler than normal midwestern and eastern North America, that area is radiating less. Is the lower loss of heat from the lower 48 matched, surpassed, or not matched by the more heat radiated off in the Arctic? Seems like less sea ice would mean a lower albedo in the Arctic, contributing to increased absorption of solar radiation.

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By Eric Peterson (Front Royal, VA 22630)
on January 31st, 2014

kermit, there is no solar radiation in winter in the Arctic.

You are correct that it is not simple.  The trillion dollar question is how does the heat engine with all its complexities respond to more heat,  Is there more meridional flow and heat loss?  The other meridional flow factor is ocean currents which is driven by different dynamics.

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By Mati
on January 29th, 2014

¿What kind of projection is th 2nd figure? ¿with 2 poles on the circle? ¿is that correct?

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By Brandon Hardesty (Bensalem, PA 19020)
on January 29th, 2014

I found this forum that has many articles outlining why climate change is happening. It is a virtual encyclopedia about what we are doing to our planet and how we can change it:

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By Katherine Cooper (Xenia/Ohio)
on February 10th, 2014

As of today, 10 February 2014, we are in the midst of what our meteorologists are calling an arctic cold blast. Is this the return of the polar vortex? If so, how many times will this event revisit us?

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