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A Polar Vortex in July? Not

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


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Years ago on Saturday Night Live, Gilda Radner played a little old lady, Emily Litella, who came onto the Weekend Update news set to deliver an editorial about a burning issue of the day—only she didn’t quite have the correct terminology. She would begin to protest against “busting schoolchildren” when in fact the issue was busing schoolchildren, or about the “deaf penalty” instead of the death penalty. The fake news anchor would politely correct her, she would demure, look at the camera, and say “Never mind.”

So it is with the polar vortex. Since Friday, television news anchors and meteorologists on TV and online have been warning about a polar vortex that was crashing down from the Arctic across Canada and would bring record cold temperatures into the upper central U.S. today, tomorrow and Wednesday. Yes, the very same polar vortex that put the same region, as well as the Northeast, into a deep-freeze this past winter.

The one difference: the record lows would be 52 degrees F, or maybe 50 or 48.

In the name of science, other meteorologists went on Twitter and began to plead with their colleagues to not call this drifting southward of cool air a polar vortex, a few adding their cries to the hashtags #StopPolarVortexAbuse and #NotPolarVortex. Some of the admonishments present serious science. Others are just funny.

Seeing the pushback, and perhaps sensing that even the general, nonscientific public had a clue that a “polar vortex” in July was hype—or clickbait, if you prefer online news—many of the media personalities eased away from the term. Trying to make summer lemonade from his colleagues’ lemons, meteorologist Al Roker on the Today show said, “Okay, let’s not call this a polar vortex. Let’s call it a polar invasion.” Cue Emily Litella. Weather.com opted for “polar blast.” The National Weather Service—after several of its regional offices had made forecasts with the term, and had even displayed graphics of the evil vortex—went out of its way to note that the pool of chilly air everyone was fussing about was not a polar vortex.

So what is a polar vortex? How does it affect our weather? And does climate change make it more of a threat (in winter)? See our primer, here, complete with handy diagram. We posted it in January.

Graphic by XNR Productions

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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