Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

‘Polar vortex event’ brings subzero temps to U.S. — and it could become more common.

On Wednesday, Chicago was colder than parts of Antarctica by 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

weatherbell.com
  • Cold Arctic air will bring temperatures near or below zero degrees Fahrenheit for more than 100 million Americans.
  • A disruption in the swirling mass of air above the Arctic Circle – a pattern known as the polar vortex – is causing this weather event.
  • Although counterintuitive, it's possible that global warming leads to these kinds of disruptions.

A huge mass of Arctic air is sweeping across the U.S., bringing subzero temperatures that have grounded flights, closed schools and killed at least two so far.

Temperatures are lowest in the Midwest and New England, where about 25 million people are projected to face temperatures of minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit, with wind chills of around minus 60 in parts of Minnesota and North Dakota. On Wednesday morning, Chicago was colder than Antarctica by 10 degrees at minus 21.

"The heart of the Arctic cold has arrived," the National Weather Service's Chicago office said on Twitter. "The combined effects of the cold & winds are at their peak today with wind chills of -45° to -60° continuing. The afternoon highs today...yes the highs...will only be -11° to -17°."

Nationwide, at least two people have been confirmed dead and thousands of flights have been cancelled.

"You're talking about frostbite and hypothermia issues very quickly, like in a matter of minutes, maybe seconds," Brian Hurley, a meteorologist with the Weather Prediction Center, told the Huffington Post.

​A polar vortex event

The frigid temperatures are caused by a mass of cold air that leaked from the polar vortex in the Arctic Circle. The polar vortex is an area of cold, low-pressure air that swirls in the stratosphere above Earth's North and South poles. When it's strong, the polar vortex swirls in a regular pattern above the Arctic Circle, contained in part by a strong jet stream that keeps the cold air up north and the warm air down south.

But sometimes the winds that power the polar vortex weaken, resulting in a destabilized jet stream that shoots cold air to the south – what's known as a polar vortex event.

Although the polar vortex isn't new, scientists still aren't exactly sure what factors destabilize it and cause these extreme weather events. In recent years, however, some climate scientists have suggested that global warming might be causing disruptions above the Arctic.

​Does global warming cause polar vortex events?

Possibly. Although it seems counterintuitive that global warming might cause subzero temperatures, it's known that warm air can weaken the polar vortex. So, considering that the Arctic is warming at faster rates than the rest of the planet, it's possible that global warming is disrupting the polar vortex above the North Pole, resulting in a weakened jet stream – the barrier that keeps the frigid Arctic air contained in the north.

To be sure, this theory is still being researched by climate scientists, and what exactly causes polar vortex events is still an open question, as Dr. Michael Mann, the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, told CBS News:

These questions test the limits of both our available data (the apparent increase in frequency of these events is quite recent and so at best only just starting to emerge from the background noise) and the model simulations.

As we showed in our recent Science article, current generation climate models don't resolve some of the key processes involved in the jet stream dynamics behind many types of weather extremes.

Honest scientists can legitimately differ based on reasonable interpretations of the evidence to date.

LIVE ON MONDAY | "Lights, camera, activism!" with Judith Light

Join multiple Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress Judith Light live on Big Think at 2 pm ET on Monday.

Big Think LIVE

Add event to calendar

AppleGoogleOffice 365OutlookOutlook.comYahoo

Keep reading Show less

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
Keep reading Show less

The mind-blowing science of black holes

What we know about black holes is both fascinating and scary.

Videos
  • When it comes to black holes, science simultaneously knows so much and so little, which is why they are so fascinating. Focusing on what we do know, this group of astronomers, educators, and physicists share some of the most incredible facts about the powerful and mysterious objects.
  • A black hole is so massive that light (and anything else it swallows) can't escape, says Bill Nye. You can't see a black hole, theoretical physicists Michio Kaku and Christophe Galfard explain, because it is too dark. What you can see, however, is the distortion of light around it caused by its extreme gravity.
  • Explaining one unsettling concept from astrophysics called spaghettification, astronomer Michelle Thaller says that "If you got close to a black hole there would be tides over your body that small that would rip you apart into basically a strand of spaghetti that would fall down the black hole."

Space travel could create language unintelligible to people on Earth

A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.

Cylindrical space colony.

Credit: NASA Ames Research Center.
Surprising Science
  • A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
  • Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
  • This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast