What is a polar vortex? The arctic winds that brought cold air and chaos to the US

 

Much of the United States is currently in the grip of a polar vortex, a system of dense air producing plummeting temperatures and swathes of freezing weather, bringing some parts of the country to a halt and causing chaos in others.

A polar vortex is a circulating pattern of strong winds flowing around a low-pressure system, which normally sits over the Arctic during winter. The effect of such a vortex is to keep the cold air circulating within the polar region.

However, when the vortex breaks down or splits into two, it can send very cold air further south.

The weather conditions produced by this polar vortex have been so severe that even polar bears at the Lincoln Park zoo in Chicago were brought inside as the weather dropped to a record low of -26C, CNN have reported. Residents have been warned their skin may freeze if they leave their homes when wind chills plummeted to -53C.    

Chicago's National Weather Service office reported that Monday's low of -26C at O'Hare International Airport beat a record set in 1884 and equalled in 1988. In Fargo, the largest city in North Dakota, temperatures sank below - 35C.

A swirling mass of Arctic air moved south into the continental United States. The air mass began breaking off from the polar vortex, a semi-permanent low-pressure system with a center around Canada’s Baffin Island A swirling mass of Arctic air moved south into the continental United States. The air mass began breaking off from the polar vortex, a semi-permanent low-pressure system with a center around Canada’s Baffin Island

Forecasters predict 187 million people could feel the effects of the "polar vortex" by the time it spreads across the country. At least 13 people are thought to have died as a result of the extreme conditions already, including several road accidents, a man who succumbed to hypothermia in Wisconsin, and a worker crushed by a massive pile of road salt at a storage facility in Philadelphia.

The weather conditions produced in the polar vortex could also make temperatures drop to the coldest on record in the 21st century. The National Weather Service predicts temperatures will be 25 to 35 degrees below average for the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast to the Ohio, Tennessee Valleys and into the Upper Midwest today.

Some scientists believe that warmer-than-average conditions in the Arctic can weaken the polar vortex, so causing colder-than-average conditions at lower latitudes. They think this could help to explain the extreme conditions of the 2009-2010 winter when the normal pattern of Arctic winds broke down causing a weakened polar vortex to allow a frigid body of air to move south. This brought record snow conditions to northern Europe, eastern Asia and eastern North America.

The polar vortex explained

Polar vortices tend to strengthen in the winter and weaken in the summer and can span a distance of more than 1,200 miles, with the air circulating in an anti-clockwise fashion around the North Pole.

A polar vortex also occurs around Antarctica, and is a key feature of the winter weather of the southern hemisphere that results in the conditions necessary for the depletion of atmospheric ozone.

Read more:

'Polar vortex' snowstorm plunging America into record-breaking cold snap may bring coldest day of 21st century

Frozen skin, dead animals and hypothermia: What happens at -50ºC?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...