What Is A Polar Vortex?

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A polar vortex is a large whirlwind of cold air that parks itself in the Arctic region. If it breaks, cold weather conditions can be observed in more southern areas.

If you’re a resident of the United States, chances are good that you might already be familiar with this term. We say this because, in the past year, the country has faced numerous outbreaks of extremely cold temperatures! In Chicago, the temperatures dropped to -45 Fahrenheit, which was colder than Antarctica! So… why is this happening? Let’s find out!

Electric road traffic mobile sign by the side of a snow covered road with snow falling warning of polar vortex(Alan Budman)s
A caution hoarding (Photo Credit : Alan Budman/Shutterstock)

A polar vortex is simply a massive expanse of cold air swirling near the North Pole. Although it has only recently come into the public eye, this is far from a new phenomenon. The low-pressure area associated with the polar vortex is almost always up there. However, it is important to note that this mass of cold air usually parks itself in polar regions. However, when it strays a bit too far from home, it brings unlikely Arctic-like weather conditions to more southern regions.

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How Is A Polar Vortex Formed?

Unlike the ozone hole or El Niño winds, there is no initiating event of the polar vortex. Therefore, the question above is technically incorrect. The polar vortex is always present near the poles and corresponds to the cold temperatures that we typically associate with these regions. It is a low-pressure zone that flows counter-clockwise, thus helping to keep the colder air farther north.

polar vortex illustration globe wind direction(Bakhtiar Zein)S
The region where the polar vortex is usually present (Photo Credit : Bakhtiar Zein/Shutterstock)

According to the National Weather Service, this mass of swirling cold air weakens in the summer and strengthens in the winter. However, during the winter season, it becomes less stable and expands, resulting in the movement of this mass of cold air southwards over the United States, carried along with a jet stream.

Also Read: Why Are Winters Colder With Increasing Global Warming?

Are Polar Vortices Dangerous?

Now that you know how polar vortices are formed, you can probably guess whether they’re dangerous or not. Regions like Chicago and Florida saw temperatures that were much lower than the average for these areas. These cold streaks came as a major surprise to those Americans who are used to it being relatively warm in January! The colder weather also affects vehicles, as engines don’t start as easily as they do in warmer climes.

Tragically, these cold winds are also responsible for deaths in some regions. According to BBC, almost 21 people died due to abnormally cold weather in the United States, while hundreds of people were injured in weather-related incidents. When the temperatures drop, school and business closures occur, along with thousands of flight cancellations and power outages.

Traffic on Kingston Road during winter snowstorm(Elena Elisseeva)S
Traffic due to dangerously cold weather conditions (Photo Credit : Elena Elisseeva/Shutterstock)

Also Read: Why Is The East Coast Of The USA Colder Than The West Coast?

Does Climate Change Play A Role?

It seems logical that climate change plays a role in almost every catastrophe these days. Whether it is the melting of polar ice, rising sea levels, or even rampant wildfires around the globe, climate change has a hand in them all. However, is the polar vortex also one of climate change’s symptoms? Some scientists think so! A senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Center argues that melting sea ice in the Arctic regions is somehow linked to changes in the polar vortex.

As we know, ice reflects a significant percentage of the sunlight back into the atmosphere. However, now that the ice caps are melting, this heat is instead being absorbed by the oceans. As such, they become hot spots and reduce the contrast between the Arctic air and the air of more southern regions. The intensity of the winds that form a barrier between these regions is diminished, which results in the breaking down of the polar vortex.

However, some experts also claim that the earth’s atmosphere is an incredibly complicated system, so there is no rock-solid proof if these polar vortex occurrences and atmospheric breakdowns are increasing or not! Basically, we require a lot more research before we can blame climate change for this phenomenon!


In regions where people practice farming widely, healthy rains are often welcome. However, if those same showers become uncontrolled and take the form of storms, an entire harvest can be lost. This same balance is true in other situations as well. The polar vortex strengthens in the winter season and ensures cold weather at the poles, which is favorable for the ice caps. However, if the frequency of these atmospheric breakdowns continues to increase, then both the ice caps and global temperatures are at risk.

Not only did 21 people die in 2019 due to the harsh cold brought on by the breakdown of the polar vortex in the United States, but the quality of life for millions was also affected for a brief time. The far-reaching consequences of rising temperatures might become difficult to control after a certain point, whether climate change is directly blamed or not. Perhaps the governments of the world should consider these extreme weather events as a wake-up call to take real action!

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References (click to expand)
  1. What is the Polar Vortex? - National Weather Service. The National Weather Service
  2. What Is the Polar Vortex? | NOAA SciJinks – All About Weather. scijinks.gov
  3. Polar vortex: The science behind the cold. The Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences
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About the Author

Bhoomika has a degree in Biological Sciences from Sophia Girls College, Ajmer. Apart from writing, she adores travelling to offbeat destinations that offer more than just tourism. Being a strong supporter of women in STEM, she derives her inspiration from trailblazing personalities such as Marie Curie and Jane Goodall.