Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Lorin Robinson: The POTUS and the polar vortex

Lorin Robinson: The POTUS and the polar vortex

Midwest awaits spring-like thaw just days after bitter cold (copy)

Pedestrians pass a frozen water fountain at Bryant Park Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of hearing the POTUS trumpet that the recent bitterly cold temperatures in the upper third of the country are proof positive that global warming is “fake news.”

Although 73 percent of Americans believe global warming is happening, about 48 percent of Republicans disagree, many considering global warming to be a liberal hoax. So, Trump probably believes that, in continuing to deny its existence, he’s stroking his all-important “base.”

There also continues to be a significant partisan divide about the seriousness of the problem. More than 8-in-10 Democrats (82 percent) say global warming is a very serious problem, but only 25 percent of Republicans feel the same. In other words, 75 percent of Republicans aren’t concerned about the current and coming negative effects of the phenomenon. 

Except for the occasional tweet during severe winter weather, Trump routinely ignores the subject. In his recent State of the (Dis) Union speech, for example, he made no mention of global warming or his administration’s gleeful efforts to dismantle regulations designed to help rein it in.

And this brings us to the polar vortex.

Let’s start with a short multiple-choice quiz:

The polar vortex is:

1. A Canadian expansion hockey team.

2. A delectable new ice cream dessert slated for marketing this summer by a fast-food chain.

3. A band of strong winds, high in the atmosphere, that keeps bitterly cold air locked and rotating around the Arctic region.

4. A brand of snowmobile.

OK, I know that wasn’t much of a challenge. But the real question is not what the polar vortex is, but why it’s been sagging southward, bringing record low temperatures, death and frostbite.

Increasingly, it seems, the vortex is becoming distorted and meandering much farther south than normal. The phenomenon became widely known when the media first started using the term during an especially frigid spell in 2014. It was also a factor in the “bomb cyclone” that battered the East Coast last year.

This winter the vortex has broken in two, bringing the coldest conditions in decades to the Midwest. Chicago recently was 10ᵒ F colder than parts of Antarctica. And International Falls, Minnesota, often the nation’s ice box, recorded -45ᵒ F — and we’re not talking windchill. In all, 21 deaths and hundreds of cases of frostbite have been attributed to the event.

“At the moment the vortex looks like two swirling blobs of cold air, one settled over North America, the other over Eurasia,” said Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center. “It splits up when there is sudden stratospheric warming.”

Although researchers have not yet reached a consensus, many are starting to link the wandering of the polar vortex to the warming Arctic. 

The logic goes like this: Because temperatures are rising in the Arctic at double the rate of the rest of the planet, the difference between temperatures at the North Pole and continents at lower latitudes is decreasing. Less disparity in temperatures means less difference between air pressure levels. That can allow the jet stream to take longer, less-direct paths.

If the jet stream wanders enough, it can disrupt the natural flow of the polar vortex and send freezing Arctic air south toward North America, Europe and Asia.

So does the capriciousness of the polar vortex signal the end or a moderation of global temperature increase? Not according to NASA — the five warmest years on record all have taken place since 2010. The warmest year to date was 2016 with 2017 a close second.

The Yale study mentioned earlier found that nearly half of Americans (46 percent) say they have personally experienced the effects of global warming, an increase of 15 percent since March 2015. And nearly half of respondents (48 percent) think people are being harmed by global warming “right now,” a 16 percent increase.

It’s interesting to speculate how much higher those percentages would be if more of the 84 million Americans affected by the recent polar vortex-fueled cold “snap” understood that the actual cause was global warming.

It’s ironic that the freezing temperatures Trump says prove global warming is hoax prove, instead, that it exists. The polar vortex is just one more example of the planet’s rebellion against our abuse. It takes its place right alongside the rising, warming and acidifying oceans, increasingly severe weather, drought, desertification and forest fires.

Unfortunately, the meteorological consensus is that, as the planet continues to warm, a meandering polar vortex will continue to disrupt winter weather patterns.

Lorin R. Robinson, Ph.D., is a writer and former chair of the journalism department at UW-River Falls. He is the author of “Tales From The Warming.” 

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Related to this story

Most Popular