Is the polar vortex global warming?

Ben Stark, Staff Writer

Augsburg was one of many schools to close its doors Tuesday and Wednesday because of severe cold. The combination of subzero air temperatures and winds going 15 to 20 miles per hour qualify as severe in my book. This latest cold spell was historic and deserved the precautions. We live in a place known for harsh winter weather, but how did this extra-extraordinary cold get here?

To understand last week’s weather, we have to explore the polar vortex. The polar vortex is not just a buzzword but an actual phenomenon. Around the North and South Poles, a low pressure system rotates, creating a winter jet stream. This system holds the earth’s coldest temperatures in a strong rotation around the poles. In the spring months, the system weakens, and arctic temperatures rise as the vortex releases the cold air. Some winters, the polar vortex surges and pushes the arctic low pressure system south into Asia, Europe or North America. This surge is what caused an abrupt end to our relatively mild winter.

When talking about severe weather, climate change is often brought into the discussion. In a Tuesday tweet, President Trump called for a return of global warming to fix the Midwest’s weather. This comment confuses the connection between weather and climate. Weather is the day-to-day fluctuations of conditions while climate examines the long term effect of those changes.

Although climatologists need more time to develop a pattern, the recent polar vortex may be linked to global warming. Increased North Pole temperatures cause the polar vortex to break up, and then it dips south. Climatologists are examining the frequency of these events globally. Despite the United States experiencing arctic weather in three of the last six winters, global warming must be observed on a global level.

We are hoping this cold weather is behind us. For those new to the area, meteorologists have a hierarchy of bad weather (advisory, watch and warning) and provide updates on national weather service website (weather.gov). They consider a handful of factors when deciding on the severity of a system. The major factor in closures is the risk of frostbite and hypothermia. On both Tuesday and Wednesday, night windchill conditions could cause frostbite to exposed skin in under five minutes.

This article was originally published in the Feb. 2, 2019 issue. 

Trees of Augsburg University brave the cold on Wednesday.  Photo by Megan Johnson.