The Polar Vortex: Real Life ‘The Day After Tomorrow’?

By Rachel Grussi

Moving from <a href="/video/hot-weather-exercise">perennially-tropical</a> southern California to Colorado with its four seasons was pretty tough. The first winter I was here, it snowed from the time I arrived in January all the way through April. Pity the poor little Cali girl who'd only had to deal with rain and fog before! I’d like to think I’ve adjusted since then, but on warmer days here in Boulder with my iPhone showing a high of 40 degrees Fahrenheit, I still get envious of my previous city of Irvine, California, with its crazy high of 75—in January! Grr! However, looking at the current weather on the East Coast to the Midwest, I can safely say I have nothing to complain about anymore. Are you on top of the headlines? In some of the extreme cases on Tuesday, the temperature reached -35 degrees Fahrenheit. This is seriously, extremely, and <a href="/video/climate-change">drastically cold</a>. It’s so cold, you can throw a cup of boiling water and watch it turn to snow before it hits the ground. It’s so cold, the Chicago Lincoln Park zookeepers had to bring their polar bear indoors before it froze to death. It’s so cold, parts of the U.S. are colder than <a href="/video/mars">parts of Mars</a>, which is 78 million miles further away from the sun. Sound like a deadly scene out of The Day After Tomorrow to you? The situation isn’t quite as dramatically horrifying, but it’s getting there. This cold snap has been behind the state of emergency in New York, with its 36 inches of snow and even more deadly -40 degree temperature. Since Sunday, almost 6,000 flights have been canceled and delayed, which is especially wise after a scare that resulted in a plane skidding off the runway completely at JFK and hitting a snowbank. However, serious concern is for the population living in these conditions. Frostbite can occur within one minute, and with water pipes, power, and gas lines malfunctioning as a result of the cold, 300 members of the NY Army and Air National Guard have been called upon to assist the 3,800 field workers needed to do repairs. These crazy temperature dips are the result of something called a polar vortex. Washington Post weather editor Jason Samenow explains it, "We're talking about a huge sprawling area of circulating cold air originating from the North Pole. It's a low-pressure center, and typically during the winter months it resides up there. At times, some tentacles of it will slip southward and bring cold air outbreaks into the U.S., but this year, we're seeing a huge chunk of it, most of it descending into the U.S." In other words, many U.S. citizens are living in Arctic conditions that even that Chicago polar bear doesn’t wish to face. How did this extreme weather come about? According to Scientific American, "More and more <a href="/video/ice">Arctic sea ice</a> 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 <a href="/video/arctic-blues">Arctic sea ice</a> disappears in the summer, the vortex has a tendency to weaken over the subsequent winter." So what’s to blame? <a href="/video/global-warming-our-searing-earth">Global warming</a>? <a href="/video/climate-change">Climate change</a>? How long are these conditions going to last? I guess we’ll find out. Hopefully before the Statue of Liberty and Jake Gyllenhaal freeze over.

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