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Brace yourself for a polar vortex jolt

Remember in the mid-1990s when we couldn’t stop talking about El Nino? Well, we’re doing the same thing now with the polar vortex.

Yes, the polar vortex is back, and according to The Washington Post, it could make for a wild winter for much of the Northern Hemisphere in January, particularly for the Eastern United States.

Why now?

This extra brisk winter forecast comes courtesy of Judah Cohen, a climate researcher at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, a private meteorological research and risk analysis firm that provides data to government agencies like NASA and the Department of Defense. Cohen studies polar vortex conditions and prediction models every day, looking for potential disturbances that could turn a normal winter into a harsh one.

The vortex, in case you need a reminder, is a large area of low pressure located about 60,000 feet up on the atmosphere over both the poles. That’s the polar part. The vortex part describes the counter-clockwise flow of air that keeps the cold polar air up at the poles. Sometimes, however, that flow of air is disrupted, either by the winds changing direction or stopping entirely. Either of these events allows the vortex area to warm and the cold polar air goes south, causing frigid conditions in much of North America, Europe and Asia.

Sometimes this cold air is trapped by the jet stream and hangs around. Think back to March 2018 when the U.S. experienced a four-punch combo of nor’easters, or Europe getting pummeled in March, and you’ll have an idea of how that cold air can linger.

Boston covered in snow early in March 2018
This wasn’t Boston in December. It was Boston in March 2018. (Photo: Kaleb Kloppe/Flickr)

The factors at play

Cohen says a disturbance is likely to occur given two factors he uses in his modeling. The first is the behavior of snow cover in Siberia and the second is the amount of Arctic sea ice. When the snow cover advances quickly in the fall and the extent of the sea ice in the Arctic is below normal, Cohen says historical data leads him to predict that a disturbance in the vortex is a good bet.

And guess what happened during the fall? Both of those things.

Cohen’s model is predicting colder than usual temperatures for the Central and Eastern U.S. and around 21 inches of snowfall in Washington, D.C., between late December and into February.

A 3-way split

In January, the polar vortex split into two separate “sister” vortices, and now those storms are about to barrel down on the eastern and central regions of the U.S.

The first storm will sweep across the Midwest into the Northeast beginning the evening of Jan. 16 through the 18th, reports USA Today. The second storm is expected to pack more of a punch with heavy snow hitting the upper Midwest to northern New England.

But those storms aren’t the only impact from the fractured polar vortex. An arctic blast is expected to follow after the storms and is on track to be the coldest of the season. The blast will likely hit the central and eastern regions later this week.

Cohen told The Washington Post that the impact of these storms could last four to six weeks, even possibly up to eight weeks. Cohen said people living those regions should expect “intense periods of winter weather becoming more frequent including more frequent episodes of arctic outbreaks.”

Axios points out that in the past, polar vortex splits have been linked with major snowstorms, including one in 2010 when the Mid-Atlantic was engulfed in blizzards.

Of course, weather forecasting, while a science, isn’t always an exact science. The variables meteorologists use in their models differ, and that can influence the results.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in December 2018 and has been updated with new information.

Related topics:
Severe Weather,
Weather & Climate

Brace yourself for a polar vortex jolt

That pesky polar vortex could create a cold, snowy winter for the Northern Hemisphere at the start of 2019, according to one climate researcher.

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