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What Is This “Polar Vortex” That Is Freezing the U.S.?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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As I write these words, temperatures across half the U.S. are plummeting like a rock. Extreme lows are forecast by tonight: -32 degrees Fahrenheit in Fargo, N.D.; -21 degrees F in Madison, Wisc.; -15 degrees F in Chicago and Indianapolis, according to the National Weather Service. Wind chills will reach a bizarre 60 degrees below zero F in some places, freezing exposed skin within one minute. That number is more typical for Mars—at night, according to the Curiosity rover NASA has free-wheeling over there.

As each hour passes, more and more television and radio reporters are attributing the insane cold to a “polar vortex” up in northern Canada. Vortex, yes, but upper Canada? Not exactly. One forecaster called the beast a hurricane in the Arctic, which is dramatic but wrong. So what is this mysterious marvel and why is it invading America?

The polar vortex is a prevailing wind pattern that circles the Arctic, flowing from west to east all the way around the Earth. It normally keeps extremely cold air bottled up toward the North Pole. Occasionally, though, the vortex weakens, allowing the cold air to pour down across Canada into the U.S., or down into other regions such Eastern Europe. In addition to bringing cold, the air mass can push the jet stream—the band of wind that typically flows from the Pacific Ocean across the U.S.—much further south as well. If the jet stream puts up a fight, the moisture it carries can fall out as heavy snow, which atmospheric scientists say is the circumstance that caused the February 2010 “snowmageddon” storm that shut down Washington, D.C.

But why does the vortex weaken? Now it gets interesting. More and more Arctic sea ice is melting during summer months. The more ice that melts, the more the Arctic Ocean warms. The ocean radiates much of that excess heat back to the atmosphere in winter, which disrupts the polar vortex. Data taken over the past decade indicate that when a lot of Arctic sea ice disappears in the summer, the vortex has a tendency to weaken over the subsequent winter, if related atmospheric conditions prevail over the northern Atlantic Ocean. The situation looks something like that shown in the graphic below. (For a full explanation, see the Scientific American article that accompanies the graphic.)

Although the extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic varies year to year, overall it has been disappearing to a notable degree since 2007 and it is forecast to continue to vanish even further. That could mean more trouble for the polar vortex, and more frigid outbreaks—a seeming contradiction to “global warming,” perhaps, but not for “global weirding,” also known as climate change.

Graphic by XNR Productions

Photo courtesy of Wing-Chi Poon on WikimediaCommons

Mark Fischetti About the Author: Mark Fischetti is a senior editor at Scientific American who covers energy, environment and sustainability issues. Follow on Twitter @markfischetti.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rkipling 4:47 pm 01/6/2014

    So, we are being frozen by global warming?

    Link to this
  2. 2. Shoshin 4:49 pm 01/6/2014

    You lost me at the arctic sea ice thing. Sea ice levels are 50% higher than normal, so your assumption is false, as less sea ice is melting. This whole thing could be something that we used to call … weather.

    I hate to age myself by stating this, but winters are now what they were like back when I was kid in the 1960′s and 70′s. Younger people may think this weather is “unprecedented, but it was normal for me.

    No story here once you remove the AGW angle.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Shoshin 4:51 pm 01/6/2014

    I aslo find your discussion disappointing. i was looking for a real analysis and all I got was a re-hash of alarmist talking points.

    You can go ahead and censor this comment. I could care less.

    Link to this
  4. 4. rkipling 4:54 pm 01/6/2014

    Yup, the winter of ’76/77 was a cold one. Ohio River froze over. Days with the highs in single digits or below zero. Idiots walked across the river to Kentucky.

    Link to this
  5. 5. mfischetti 5:31 pm 01/6/2014

    Shoshin .. Once again your “data” and comments are an attempt to confuse the public with misinformation. You say Arctic sea ice “levels” (define that for us) are 50% higher than “normal” (define that too). Not so. The Arctic Ocean ice cover reaches its minimum each September, then begins to build up again. The minimum amount of ice cover each summer had fluctuated above and below six million square kilometers from 1979 through 2000. Losses began to get greater each summer thereafter, dropping to about five million square kilometers in 2007. After that year the minimum ice cover declined rapidly, dwindling to an all-time record low of 3.4 million square kilometers on September 16, 2012. The minimum in 2013 was not that extensive, but it was 5.1 million square kilometers, the sixth lowest on record and still far less than in 1979-2000. That’s according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. You can see the numbers here http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=82094. If you think you have better data, share it.

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  6. 6. erbarker 5:51 pm 01/6/2014

    The polar vortex is due to the Coriolis effect, you can see the same effect by flushing a toilet. In the northern hemisphere the water in the toilet will create a vortex rotating in a counter clockwise direction. Any thing near the edge of the vortex push to the edge of the vortex. The same thing happens with a solar vortex. A piece of the swirling cold air of the polar vortex essentially breaks off the polar vortex and is fling away from the vortex moving south. It has absolutely nothing to do climate change. An illustration of it can be found here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:N_Jetstream_Rossby_Waves_N.gif

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  7. 7. syzygy 6:04 pm 01/6/2014

    mfischetti,

    I took your article to say the ice could be an explanation, not that it was the only possible explanation. I’m pleased to learn about such ideas. I don’t have buy into every one of them.

    My view is that commenters from all sides should consider a bit less hostility. Actually a lot less would be in order. It seems there are people on both sides who only want to hear what they already believe.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Shoshin 6:10 pm 01/6/2014

    mfischetti:

    Please then explain the mechanism which causes the authors assertions to rule out natural variations and just plain old weather. There is much arm waving but no substance.

    Link to this
  9. 9. mfischetti 6:27 pm 01/6/2014

    shoshin: As I noted in the article, the full explanation is here http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-winters-of-our-discontent. So I’ve given my sources of data in my article, in my prior comment, and again here. So what’s your source for “50% higher than normal,” including the definition of normal?

    Link to this
  10. 10. Shoshin 7:47 pm 01/6/2014

    mfischetti:

    The article you quote does not answer my question. Again, what is the mechanism that eliminates both natural variation and just plain weather?

    WRT to sea ice, I stand corrected, or more accurately, partly corrected: sea ice is 50% greater than last year, which was a record low year, not above normal as I originally stated. Imperfect memory, thanks for the catch.

    http://www.alaskapublic.org/2013/12/27/arctic-sea-ice-volume-up-50-percent/

    However, this makes the author’s assertions even more outlandish and unsupportable, as he must infer now that the “memory” of the previous year’s (not the previous summer, but the one before that) low ice volume somehow affects storm production this year. Again if you are aware of a mechanism that allows the “memory” of a low ice volume last year to produce a storm this year, please elucidate on the mechanism, as it sounds like science fiction to me.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Owl905 9:24 pm 01/6/2014

    As always, shoshin’s pro-pollutionist spew leaves a slimy slug-trail. Even when caught, shoshin tries to be “partly corrected”; while he posts a link that refutes his own garbage: “That was also up 50 per cent from last year’s record low, but the sixth lowest on record. The seven lowest levels have all been recorded in the last seven years.” It doesn’t need some god-intervention of ‘natural variation’ (of un-named factors), or ‘just plain weather’. The Arctic meltdown of the last 15 years has introduced an altered paradigm – this year’s 6th lowest extent was more than adequate to produce another extreme event. Shoshin should put down away the ‘natural variation’ unless he can identify it.

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  12. 12. Owl905 9:31 pm 01/6/2014

    The effect hit not only North America (the city of Toronto lost an estimated 20% of its urban tree cover – Toronto Star, December 31), but also caused violent weather disruptions across western Europe. The same extreme disruptions hit Europe two out of three years, and disrupted conditions out of Antarctica as far north as Bolivia in 2010.
    Welcome to some new ranges for ‘natural variations’ in an AGW-charged world.

    Link to this
  13. 13. Dr. Merc 7:15 am 01/7/2014

    There is no word that global warming alarmists fear more than the word “history”.

    Almost every article on the current cold spell says something like this, from a Yahoo News article I just read:

    “The polar vortex from the winter storm has brought cold temperatures that haven’t been felt since the ’90s to many states across the country.”

    Okay, so the above article claims the current cold spell is due to global warming and the melting ice cap. So, what was it due to 20 years ago? The thickening ice cap? How about the “historic” cold spell 20 years before that? And the one before that?

    It’s the same across the board. You’ll read how some “record” rainfall is due to global warming then, down in paragraph 27, it notes that the previous record was 30 years earlier. Again, if it’s due to global warming this time around, what was it due to 30 years ago? And 30 years before that? And before that?

    The bottom line is that sites like this think we’re idiots and that this and other liberal sites are the only places we get our weather news. Thankfully, that’s not at all true.

    Speaking of which…

    “Frozen Out: 98% of Stories Ignore That Ice-bound Ship Was On Global Warming Mission”

    http://newsbusters.org/blogs/mike-ciandella/2014/01/02/frozen-out-98-stories-ignore-ice-bound-ship-was-global-warming-missi

    “In fact, rather than point out the mission was to find evidence of climate change, the networks often referred to the stranded people as “passengers,” “trackers” and even “tourists,” without a word about climate change or global warming.”

    They were just innocent “passengers” in the article this site ran last week. The word “climate” was never used.

    One of the “scientists” (using the term in its most generous sense) claimed all the sea ice was due to the global warming that had loosened it.

    So, in summation:

    1. Not enough ice = global warming
    2. Too much ice = global warming

    Pretty slick business model, eh?

    Link to this
  14. 14. m 9:25 am 01/7/2014

    Merc

    Global warming is as the name says “the globe”, just because your iq is in single digits and you think being cold in one part of the world means the rest of the world is cold, reminds me of a whiny adolescent.

    I prefer to think in terms of energy, as the term warming is just for lay-people like yourself.

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  15. 15. Bdermody 9:48 am 01/7/2014

    Here’s an alternative explanation: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-25618006

    He says it was actually a strengthened polar vortex early in the winter that caused a build-up of extreme cold air. That then broke out when the Northern Hemisphere cooled generally and the Meridional pressure gradient weakened. Cold air outbreaks and weakening of the vortex are actually pretty normal occurrences in winter. This explanation makes sense when you look at the Arctic Oscillation index over the months of Novemeber and December which had very high index values.

    Link to this
  16. 16. sault 9:56 am 01/7/2014

    Wow, Merc…if you’re dumb enough to believe that tabloid rag Newsbusters, no wonder you’re gullible enough to accept all that fossil fuel company propaganda they feed you too. Hey, I have some oceanfront property in Nebraska you might be interested in!

    Link to this
  17. 17. SpoonmanWoS 10:31 am 01/7/2014

    “Again, what is the mechanism that eliminates both natural variation and just plain weather?”

    Right here:

    “WRT to sea ice, I stand corrected, or more accurately, partly corrected: sea ice is 50% greater than last year, which was a record low year, not above normal as I originally stated.”

    Answer Shoshin’s question, then ask another. Don’t ask one question, get the answer, hand wave and then move onto a different topic.

    Link to this
  18. 18. pastimesvt 11:11 am 01/7/2014

    I guess I would ask the naysayers to watch the movie Chasing Ice (www.chasingice.com) and explain the VISUAL evidence of our declining ice pack… After that is explained it would be far easier to take their opinions with more than a (very small) grain of salt.

    Link to this
  19. 19. Shoshin 11:14 am 01/7/2014

    Owl905

    Natural variations in the climate have been around since the planet congealed from a mass of interstellar gas and dust. AGW proponents are the ones who now deny that natural variation still exists and claim that each and every storm is due to the hand of man.

    Please explain when and how mankind became powerful enough to eliminate all natural climate variation? And if so, can they make it rain on my garden this summer so I don’t have to use my sprinkler?

    Thanks

    Link to this
  20. 20. sault 11:19 am 01/7/2014

    There are a lot of misconceptions about climate change going on in the comments here. The melting polar ice exacerbates the extremes, making what would normally be a crazy winter into the even greater craziness we are seeing. People trying to cherry-pick 2012 as a baseline forget that it was a record low and that some variation from year to year will happen regardless of human activity. Even so, the people cherry-picking 2012 are committing another grave error because sea ice coverage is actually SLIGHTLY BELOW what it was in 2012:

    http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/

    This illustrates natural variability working over the underlying factors caused by human activity in about the best way I can imagine. Maybe 2012 would have been a very calm year absent human activity and maybe 2013 – 2014 would have seen above average activity. However, with all the ice that has melted due to climate change, everything gets thrown out of whack and the extremes are amplified. This has all been predicted by climate scientists for decades, btw.

    Look, we are at the bottom edge of -2 standard deviations away from the 1981 – 2010 average, an average that has been skewed lower by the massive ice loss since 2000 anyway. The science is clear that human activity, chiefly the release of greenhouse gases like CO2 during fossil fuel combustion, is the cause. Either we clean up our act or spend greater and greater amounts of global productivity dealing with the consequences.

    Link to this
  21. 21. sault 11:23 am 01/7/2014

    “AGW proponents are the ones who now deny that natural variation still exists”

    LOL, here’s a great example of all the misconceptions going on around here. Wrapped up in a silly strawman argument as well! Seriously deniers, if this is the best you got, the fossil fuel companies that come up with the garbage and pay you to post it online are getting desperate.

    Link to this
  22. 22. learningengineer 11:26 am 01/7/2014

    Most of the comments ignore the fact that sulfur dioxide, a climate coolant, was removed from smokestacks starting in the 80s so as to slow the process of acidification of lakes and oceans.

    Link to this
  23. 23. syzygy 11:59 am 01/7/2014

    m,

    When you refer to others as “lay-people” are you implying that you are scientifically trained? It’s tempting to say more, but I will leave it at that.

    Link to this
  24. 24. happybana 12:25 pm 01/7/2014

    Just because we experience a snow cap doesn’t mean we have to call it “global weirding.” An overall average increase in temperature throughout a 365 day period is still warming, even if that warming causes occasional dives every 15 years or so.

    Link to this
  25. 25. happybana 12:26 pm 01/7/2014

    Typo, snow cap = cold snap. Oy.

    Link to this
  26. 26. SciEd 12:48 pm 01/7/2014

    Initially, I wanted to make two comments – one science editor to another. First, I’ve always considered it bad form to refer to our planet as “the Earth.” It’s akin to writing “the Jupiter,” “the Venus,” etc. Second, describing the weakened polar vortex as “allowing the cold air to pour down across Canada into the U.S.,” just perpetuates the misconception that the North Pole is “up” and South Pole is “down.” (Granted, cold air is denser than warm aire and can flow downward toward Earth’s surface within Earth’s atmosphere…but that’s not what was being described here.)

    But…those comments seem so banal compared with the heated exchanges above. But I guess that’s what you get when you mix science and politics. Much like mixing science and religion. Many of the commenters here either forget the basic tenets of science…or never knew them.

    In any event, let’s not get lazy with our science writing. :-)

    Link to this
  27. 27. rkipling 1:27 pm 01/7/2014

    SciEd,

    Your comments on these blogs would be welcomed by many readers I believe. I don’t know how familiar you are with the SciAm environmental blogs, but your observations about basic tenets of science and mixing of science and religion seem accurate to me.

    I’ve been reading these blogs for a couple of years give or take. Among the readers are a couple of comment cadres. Let’s call them Red Team and Blue Team. Whatever the topic these folks flock in to continue their feud. Occasionally an unaffiliated stray wanders into the fray. This is actually one of the tamer threads. You have to wonder if some of the more passionate commenters see their comments as part of an epic battle between good and evil?

    For what little it may be worth, I hope you add your thoughts to as many of these blogs as you have time. A reasoned view which adds information would be welcome whatever your perspective. Expect flak from both sides, but the Reds can get a little hotter on average. 

    Link to this
  28. 28. MCraig 1:48 pm 01/7/2014

    I recall this from a 1975 article:

    “During warm periods a “zonal circulation” predominates, in which the prevailing westerly winds of the temperate zones are swept over long distances by a few powerful high and low pressure centers. The result is a more evenly distributed pattern of weather, varying relatively little from month to month or season to season. During cooler climatic periods, how-ever, the high-altitude winds are broken up into irregular cells by weaker and more plentiful pressure centers, causing formation of a “meridional circulation” pattern. These small, weak cells may stagnate over vast areas for many months, bringing unseasonably cold weather on one side and unseasonably warm weather on the other.” http://www.sott.net/article/266751-1975-Science-News-Climate-change-Chilling-possibilities

    It seems to me that we are currently experiencing a “meridional circulation” pattern and yet Arctic conditions were somewhat different in 1975. This is paradoxical to me although I am not a climate scientist.

    Link to this
  29. 29. Ikelos 2:55 pm 01/7/2014

    m, considering the defensive nature of your response, the lack of any new information, and the obvious attempt to insult a total stranger, the only relevant information I got from that is that you are most likely the “whiny adolescent” mention in your post.

    Shoshin, there is no natural mechanism that eliminates natural weather variation. But we have the technology to monitor weather variations unlike anyone else before us, and the statistics consistently show another factor.

    Its not a matter of how powerful mankind has become, its a matter of how populous we are. There are an estimated 5,500 species of mammals on the earth, many with populations ranging in the millions or hundreds of thousands. But 7 billion of us. One species. How many billions of cars transport these people in the world? What about the transport of goods? And how many billions of cattle are there in the world to feed them?

    In the 1960′s, chlorofluorocarbons became widely available, the use of which catalyzes the decay of ozone into 02. Catalysts increase the rate of a chemical reaction but are not used up in the process. This means that each chlorofluorocarbon molecule could catalyze 100,000s of ozone to o2 reactions, and resulted in a 4% decrease in overall ozone levels per decade, with much more extreme variations observed at the poles. This ultimately resulted in a ban in the late 80s, and we are only now begining to see the ozone layer recover from this. All that damage in less than 30 years.

    It’s not a matter of how powerful people are. Life is not god’s gift to the universe, its an ongoing chemical reaction, and changes to this equilibrium have consequences for everything else that depend on this balance. And these changes can take millions of years to adapt to. But people have one advantage that nothing else on the earth has had before us. We have science, an understanding of the basic components of chemistry, and we are able to synthesis these new factors at rates never before seen on the earth. It’s too fast for anything to keep up with, and we are currently facing a mass extinction at a greater rate than the one that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Bees? Amphibians? Ocean acidification that is devistating sea life?

    It’s convenient to ignore all of this from the safety of our living rooms, but of the 5 major mass extinctions in our planets history, they’ve all been characterized by an increase in planetary co2 that took hundreds of thousands of years to recover from, and that catalyzed a number of ecological events which resulted in further release of greenhouse gases. Namely co2 and methane trapped in polar ice, and on the sea floor. And yes, when things decay they release co2. From drought, to forest fires, to anoxia, history shows us how bad it can get, and that its happened many times. It’s hard to believe that we’ve only numbered in the billions for just a couple centuries, when multicellular life has existed for 650 million years. But there is more than enough information to definitively draw a conclusion of the immense impact of the human race.

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  30. 30. Shoshin 3:30 pm 01/7/2014

    lkelos:

    The issue at hand is not whether man is worthy or unworthy of existence, but whether the “polar Vortex” is anything other than a rare but perfectly natural weather event.

    So far I see no postings that provide any mechanism that supersedes natural variation.

    Link to this
  31. 31. Jon Fraud Carry 4:43 pm 01/7/2014

    Global ‘weirding’? And you want to be taken seriously as a scientific resource? What a pathetic attempt at a joke. You barking moon bats are the first to chant: “Climate is different than weather!” Yet here you go, spouting off about this particular cold snap is really because of global warming. At best it is unscientific, at worst it puts you in the camp of hysterics.

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  32. 32. downtoearthgurl 5:55 pm 01/7/2014

    Why cant we build massive pipes under artic and re freeze it sounds like a plan to me . Just a thought.

    Link to this
  33. 33. downtoearthgurl 6:05 pm 01/7/2014

    Just another quick idea would take a quick brain like mine to imagine such a thing, but all the melted ice ie. Water could be deported to africa to water some lovely plants ect to feed the hungry poor people.

    Link to this
  34. 34. syzygy 6:37 pm 01/7/2014

    We can only hope that the downtoearthgurl post is a hoax.

    Please let this be a hoax so such a person isn’t a voter.

    Link to this
  35. 35. Knighthis 6:39 pm 01/7/2014

    There is so much good information out there, that really does answer all these questions. The right-wing trolls on this blog are very entertaining, but its really sad to encounter people who are either just very ignorant of Science, or obvious whores payed by big oil, or both! No excuse!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nzwJg4Ebzo#t=18

    Link to this
  36. 36. downtoearthgurl 6:47 pm 01/7/2014

    No im for real, why not if its melting re freeze it, man walked on the moon so surely some brain out there can figure out what to do. And I dont feel the need to vote one idiot out for another to take the last idiots place.

    Link to this
  37. 37. downtoearthgurl 6:50 pm 01/7/2014

    Im not a troll how rude, and I have no wings sad face x

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  38. 38. ITCHYWEBFEET 7:07 pm 01/7/2014

    So many BS experts on both sides. Here’s my input. USA temperature -38.5 degree C, stay home next to the roaring fire in the fire place. OOdnadatta South Australia +51.5 degrees C, stay near an air conditioner in the local pub.

    Link to this
  39. 39. syzygy 7:09 pm 01/7/2014

    downtoearthgurl,

    If your comments were sincere, I suggest you find someone educated in science to explain some of the problems with your ideas. You may find some replies to your posts unkind. It sounds like a more detailed conversation than is practical here would be helpful to you.

    Link to this
  40. 40. syzygy 7:13 pm 01/7/2014

    downtoearthgurl ,

    Don’t take these mean people seriously. And don’t be sad. I believe you mean well. This is a tough crowd.

    Good Luck

    Link to this
  41. 41. downtoearthgurl 7:36 pm 01/7/2014

    Ah well cant have brains and beauty. I was more of a drama type at school. And webfeet you got the right idea get down pub loves it. Well its over and out from the uk. Happy new year…….hope you all freeze lol jokes xxxxxx

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  42. 42. VJBray-Durfey 7:40 pm 01/7/2014

    Freakishly cold weather in certain locations brought on ultimately by melting of the polar ice caps is NOT contradictory to “global warming”. It is in fact COMPLETELY aligned with the idea. “Global warming” refers to a warming of the whole globe, on average. It was never suggested that “global warming” makes all regions of the globe warmer at the same time.

    Link to this
  43. 43. downtoearthgurl 7:51 pm 01/7/2014

    Maybe its nothing to do with hot or cold melt or no melt maybe its to do with the tectonic plates and our earth is an ever changing ball of crustyness…%=£€₩ = get down pub ready for big bang

    Link to this
  44. 44. fredzipp69 9:09 pm 01/7/2014

    Has anyone thought MAYBE the shifting of the magnetic poles on the Sun has something to do with this? Just seems that both events are occurring in a close time frame.. I don’t buy global warming or HAARP, I think this is the angle to look at though…

    Link to this
  45. 45. Dr. Strangelove 9:23 pm 01/7/2014

    mfischetti

    Your attribution to less Arctic sea ice as cause of current extreme cold weather in US is contrived. Arctic sea ice increased 50% in volume and coverage than last year. The largest since 2007. Arctic temperature is coldest in past six years.

    http://www.alaskapublic.org/2013/12/27/arctic-sea-ice-volume-up-50-percent/

    Following your logic, extreme winters in US should have occurred in last six years when Arctic was warmer. Instead, minus 50C winter occurred today when Arctic is coldest.

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  46. 46. ecardenas 9:41 pm 01/7/2014

    I don’t understand why people are still using the misnomer “global warming” to describe everything going on. Nice and simple, systems out of balance become more prone to extreme perturbations. This means more extreme weather events. We are changing the system balances, one of those being the oceans circulation of cooler and warmer water. No need to even explain really, you all have internet, stop being lazy and look up what climate change really means.

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  47. 47. Dr. Strangelove 1:36 am 01/8/2014

    mfischetti

    the claims that greenhouse warming causes more cold waves like we have seen this week really seems to be without any basis in observational evidence or in theory. The media needs to stop pushing this unsupported argument.

    But a few researchers came up with a hypothesis that as the poles warm the jet stream would weaken and that would result in more waviness of the jet stream. However, recent work by Professor Elizabeth Barnes of Colorado State has shown that there were methodological deficiencies in the research suggesting increased jet undulations with global warming. And that there is no observational evidence of increased waviness. Furthermore, there is little evidence that the jet approaching North America has weakened recently. Busted.

    The IPCC, the global group of scientists that have come together to estimate the impacts of increased greenhouse gases, have been clear about their conclusions:

    “There is likely to be a decline in the frequency of cold air outbreaks (i.e., periods of extreme cold lasting from several days to over a week) in NH winter in most areas.”

    But a new study finds little evidence to support the idea that the plummeting Arctic sea ice has meaningfully changed our weather patterns. The research, published today in Geophysical Research Letters, says links between declining Arctic sea ice and extreme weather are “an artifact of the methodology” and not real.

    But the new research by Colorado State professor Elizabeth Barnes, which examined the waviness of the jet stream over the period 1980-2011, found no changes in its speed and no signs of increased blocking.

    “We conclude that the mechanism put forth by previous studies … that amplified polar warming has lead to the increased occurrence of slow-moving weather patterns and blocking episodes, is unsupported by the observations,” Barnes writes.

    Link to this
  48. 48. DocLeonard 9:32 am 01/8/2014

    Here’s a good link to quickly brush up on all (or at least a good majority of) topics concerning climate change:

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/06/30/earths-climate-system-is-ridiculously-complex-with-draft-link-tutorial/

    The part about our polar vortex can be found pretty high up in that blog article.

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  49. 49. SciEd 10:30 am 01/8/2014

    Well, I’ve spent a couple of days on and off reading these comments. There’s some interesting science mixed in with the chest-thumping, mean-spirited bullshit that permeates. Overall, unfortunately, a complete waste of time. And it makes me wonder…if you’re not going to participate in an academic, scientific discourse about the topic…how do you justify the time you spend making your inane comments? Go find something more constructive to do.

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  50. 50. syzygy 2:01 pm 01/8/2014

    SciEd,

    I have asked the same question. Perhaps a psychologist could offer explanations. In any event, I suggest ignoring those comments and posting constructive ones as you have time.

    The thumpers enjoy commenting and having their existence acknowledged. I’m a bit surprised a science editor would find this novel or would use crude expressions.

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  51. 51. GerardoDiaz 6:21 pm 01/8/2014

    Sir, I agree with your analysis. It is true that past weather events have brought severe cold to much of the US yes. It is estimated that the arctic will be ice free in summertime as soon as 2016. The environmental feedback loop from this will mean soaring arctic temperatures, most likely resulting in new and unpredictable weather patterns for a large part of the Northern Hemisphere. To deny global warming based on record setting low temperatures is the folly of amatuers and the ignorant. Events like this vortex result in in loss of cold air from the arctic. That loss of cold air will mean an earlier rise in arctic temps this spring, and an accelerated loss of arctic ice. To suggest that global warming is not related to this event would be the same as saying a person who falls from a skyscraper to their death was a suicide victim, based on the fact that most people who fall from skyscrapers to their deaths are (suicide victims). It is a fallacy of reasoning. Thank you for your explanation of this phenomenon. The naysayers will probably be without water, and in scorching heat, when they finally admit that anthropogenic climate change “may be a possible explanation” for the weather extremes now and yet to come.

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  52. 52. Morgan Wright 9:03 pm 01/8/2014

    All my life these were called polar highs. Air in the stratosphere and upper troposphere moved to the poles as westerlies which were called the polar vortex. At the pole they became very cold and sank, where they became known as the polar high, then they moved away from the poles in the lower troposphere along the ground, and were known as polar easterlies. These days, because of all the annoying hype over global warming, they have to become newsworthy and new, since the whole climate in going to change all around to help sell magazines. Now the polar high is called a polar vortex, which is utterly wrong. The polar vortex is the stratospheric event. I can believe a pulp magazine like Time or National Geographic or one of the lesser science journals would hype it this shameless manner, but I’m extremely disappointed that Sci Am would stoop to such a low level. This is NOT due to global warming, it’s just a good old fashioned polar high, like we’ve always had. Now I believe I need to cancel my subscription as another great journal, this one with a 160 year history, is taken off my reading list.

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  53. 53. ColdFusionAnyone? 4:33 am 01/9/2014

    I am not a regular here, in fact it’s my first time, I wanted to learn more about the current weather system, then came to the comments section and was frankly astounded by the debate. In terms of epistemology, we can doubt almost anything. It is impossible to determine with certainty whether a single weather event has been caused by AGW. We can determine that it is consistent with expected data. Setting aside that issue, however, I was astounded by the comments of those who seem to deny AGW altogether. Certainly, climate is an enormously complex phenomenon, yet the notion of “natural variation” is slippery and nearly meaningless because our apprehension of it is contingent on an extremely limited historical data set. The farther back into history we look, the more variation we find, yet we know little about the rate of change. What is at issue, IMO, is the motivation of such posters. That humans have caused climate change is an incontrovertible fact. Scientists from many countries, working in good faith, have reached a consensus opinion that there is an extremely high probability that the increase in so-called greenhouse gases, which are incontrovertibly the result of human activity, are the cause of the measurable increase in average global temperatures. Climate models, although imperfect, indicate potentially devastating consequences if greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked, and therefore the alarm sounded by consensus opinion among climatologists is justified. The science behind these scenarios is not driven by hidden agendas. These are projections and estimates made in good faith. Given the complexities of climate modeling, it is not difficult for powerful economic interests to fund research that will call into question different aspects of climate research; such activities are done in bad faith, and the scientists who work against consensus opinion are not generally driven by a dedication to science, rather they are willing to sell their credentials to promote disingenuous research agendas that protect powerful financial interests. The individuals who question the overall validity of AGW research are driven either by radical ideology or are paid agents of fossil fuel industries. In the former case, such individuals have a strong ideological opposition to any demands for collective action, particularly international action because they are committed to an ideology of freedom that they define crassly as the right to consume fossil fuels endlessly and at the national level, the believe that any international agreement limits the sovereignty of the United States. Such ideologically driven views are simply outdated in a global context, in which global problems demand global solutions. The idea of globalization has given rise to the idea of limits – growth and exploitation of resources cannot be endless. Growth must be sustainable. Given that rational people who act in good faith can be convinced of the need for self-preservation, the commitment to denying the validity of AGW research is not motivated by reason… but by emotion against anything collectivist. I suspect it is more likely that such individuals are, in fact, paid agents of an industry that has a long record of creating ersatz grass roots movements. People concerned about climate change are reasoning in good faith, and although the science of climate change must necessarily make certain assumptions, it is incumbent on humanity to proceed with caution into the future. We should err on the side of caution – which is certainly not our present course of action. Those who question AGW are either defending an illusory and outdated ideology, one in which “freedom” has a particularly crass definition, or they are simply dissembling their true motives. In either case, it’s bad faith.

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  54. 54. abreauj 6:13 am 01/9/2014

    The fundamental core of the deniers’ arguments is that evidence of climate change in the real world is inconsistent with what you would expect if climate change was occurring within the world of a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

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  55. 55. Morgan Wright 8:03 am 01/9/2014

    Coldfusion, if you have to keep telling us that global warming is uncontrovertible, and tell us that climate alarmists are all working in good faith and have no ulterior motive, and then say that anybody who sees through the growing pile of bovine waste and denies the hoax is being paid by an oil company, it just means you are part of the problem, not the solution. The problem is the low quality of scientists who have taken over climate studies and turned it into a political movement. Used to be, geologists and chemists did these studies. Serious scientists with strict rigorous methods who had to study all the hardcore sciences to get degrees. Then a wave of politically motivated environmental activists took over college campuses and, since they usually had no scientific aptitude, and could never pass a hardcore science course, had the curriculum changed so they could get BS degrees and even PhD’s in environmental studies and call themselves scientists, without having to understand any actual science. Then they had to make a living, so they invented global warming as a way to swindle grant money from the government. Then the UN came in and created the IPCC, a panel of non-scientists who only want to redistribute wealth. The “Summary for Policy Makers” says it all, as it was written by the non-scientists and often contradicts what is said in the mail part of the report. But you say that people who don’t believe the hype work for oil companies? The main people who would benefit from a shutdown of the petroleum industry is the natural gas industry, which is mostly controlled by the oil companies. Therefore, oil companies would never pay scientists to deny the global warming hoax. abreauj your comment makes no sense at all. Bugs Bunny cartoon?

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  56. 56. laura_s 4:36 pm 01/9/2014

    The diagram shows the Scandinavian countries as being “cold”, but this hasn’t been the case so far for us. It is unbelievably warm here in Oslo, Norway. We haven’t had much snow (next to none really), just record amounts of rain.

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  57. 57. Crasher 6:21 pm 01/9/2014

    Great explanation of this event , Thanks Mark.
    I was wondering if us in the south will start to get something similar happening as the plant warms. In Australia we get periods of intense (not to your northern extremes) cold as the wind comes from the south.
    I wonder if we will start to experience much stronger cold snaps as the Antarctic starts to warm significantly due to global warming???

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  58. 58. GeneG 11:27 am 01/11/2014

    The Russian research station in Antarctica, Vostok, has been operating since 1957 and has accumulated 400,000 years of temperature data from ice cores. Except for recent times the CO2 levels have been stable at a low value of about 280 ppm yet roughly every 1000 years there is a warm cycle having nothing to do with CO2 levels. The current warm cycle is not exceptional, it is cooler now than the warm cycle starting in 1000 AD which had little or nothing to do with the then atmospheric 280 ppm CO2 level. The reporting and the levels of ignorance exhibited by most of those commenting here are appalling. None of you know what you are talking about. Climate is not driven by CO2 levels. It has not been the case and it isn’t now. Indeed very small variations in CO2 level has tracked slightly behind the climate warming cycles except this time in which CO2 levels are high yet the upward spike in global temperature is smaller than last time.

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  59. 59. larkalt 8:17 am 01/12/2014

    Here’s a quote from Time magazine which explains the theory that the recent cold snaps were caused by global warming. http://science.time.com/2014/01/06/climate-change-driving-cold-weather/
    This article emphasizes that this theory is unproven.
    “Sea ice is vanishing from the Arctic thanks to climate change, which leaves behind dark open ocean water, which absorbs more of the heat from the sun than reflective ice. That in turn is helping to cause the Arctic to warm faster than the rest of the planet, almost twice the global average. The jet stream—the belt of fast-flowing, westerly winds that essentially serves as the boundary between cold northern air and warmer southern air—is driven by temperature difference between the northerly latitudes and the tropical ones. Some scientists theorize that as that temperature difference narrows, it may weaken the jet stream, which in turns makes it more likely that cold Arctic air will escape the polar vortex and flow southward. Right now, an unusually large kink in the jet stream has that Arctic air flowing much further south than it usually would.

    Still, this research is fairly preliminary, in part because extreme Arctic sea ice loss is a fairly recent phenomenon, so scientists don’t have the long data sets they need to draw more robust conclusions about the interaction between Arctic warming and cold snaps.”

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  60. 60. jailis 11:27 am 01/12/2014

    Can any human have an idea that isn’t biased by a lifetime of accumulated experience? When I read these comments I get a sense of the lenses through which each writer sees their world. A sense, nothing specific, I in no way claim to know the motivation of any individual but religion, education, economics build a lifetime of experiences anyone of which seen from alternating perspective could weaken or reinforce any notion our brains contrive.
    Climate change or global warming driven by human interaction with our planet seems perfectly reasonable to me but I don’t really care whether it is or isn’t because I see the issue of burning carbon through my eyes.
    This energy that we’ve primarily used to fuel the change in our lifestyle over the past two-hundred or so years is based on our exploitation of a finite resource. Profit takers and those of us addicted to this inexpensive and relatively short term form of energy show no regard and no remorse for the damage we’ve done to our own health and the health of untold thousands of species that share this planet with us.
    Water for three-hundred-thousand humans in West Virginia and the habitat of countless other organisms poisoned because we can’t process the coal we burn without a dangerous chemical that we can’t store properly because doing so would undermine profit taken by and increase the cost of our addiction to this form of energy is simply the most recent of thousands upon thousands of examples.
    In my opinion burning carbon is only an example of human ego, laziness and selfishness. If not, and the eyes I’ve used to see this issue through my lifetime and to read this thread certainly could be mistaken, why haven’t we all erred on the side of humility in our discussions of this issue for the past fifty years?

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  61. 61. Morgan Wright 9:58 pm 01/17/2014

    I feel sorry for the people in the future who will live when the next ice age starts and all the fossil fuels are gone. There will be no humans outside the tropics. Americans and Europeans will have to flee the ice sheets and move to warmer climates, which means South America and Africa. I can’t imagine the wars over land that will result. This is not a theory but a 100% reality, and it’s not very far into the future. When I think of this, I think the global warming mafia, who I call the Globa Nostra, who worry about 0.8 C of warming due to coal and oil, are the biggest group of aholes I’ve ever heard of.

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  62. 62. lifesurvival 10:00 am 01/22/2014

    Well what an interesting debate lots of facts and hypothesis drawn from the data but really did anyone answer any real questions? Can solar activity influence climate on earth? Was the little ice age in the 1600 “Maunder solar minimum” due to normal climate variations or human intervention?
    What caused the Medieval Warm period from AD 800–1300?
    Is the earths climate continuing over 1,000′s of years changing? Is another ice-age expected?

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  63. 63. Chautauqua 9:22 pm 01/28/2014

    Could the sun spot cycle and sun spot peaks (explosions) also be a contributing factor to what impacts the Arctic vortex? Does anyone know if there is any research on this?

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  64. 64. Chautauqua 9:42 pm 01/28/2014

    Here is an article about how the sun spot cycle can impact temperatures on earth. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/24/solar-lull-little-ice-age-sun-scientists_n_4645248.html

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