Brace yourself for a bitterly cold winter, as climate change shifts the polar vortex

Pedestrians gather at a bus stop during snowfall along Lexington Avenue in New York. CREDIT: AP/Bebeto Matthews
Pedestrians gather at a bus stop during snowfall along Lexington Avenue in New York. CREDIT: AP/Bebeto Matthews

Scientists have long said global warming will bring extreme weather.

It’s coming back.

The polar vortex that shocked the northeast with extremely cold days may bring more bitterly cold winters to North America, according to a new study.

Advertisement

The polar vortex is a massive system of swirling air that usually contains cold air around the North Pole. It has been shifting for decades, researchers found — but it has only recently become a household term, after it was blamed for causing record cold weather affecting some 200 million people in 2014.

According to the study, over the past 30 years, the polar vortex has weakened, in part due to Arctic sea-ice loss linked to human-caused climate change. That weakening has prompted it to shift toward Europe and Asia in February. This means unusually cold days may become more common in February and March, the Weather Channel reported. At the same time, Europe is facing warmer winters.

Scientists have long said global warming will bring extreme weather. This is what it looks like.

“Climate change can lead to extremes; it’s not like a regular change, everyone to the same extent at all times and places,” co-author Martyn Chipperfield, professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of Leeds, told ClimateWire. “Despite the overall warming, you can get in places like the Northeastern U.S. extreme cold events. That’s consistent with climate change and global warming.”

Advertisement

A weakened vortex means cold Arctic air moves to lower latitudes, as happened in early 2014 and 2015. Some experts are reporting the polar vortex is already acting up this year, and that may point for a troubling winter.

In 2014, the polar vortex cost the U.S. economy some $5 billion in cancelled flights and infrastructure repairs. It also meant higher energy bills — which not only hit to consumers’ pockets, they also mean more use of fossil fuels at a time when scientists say emissions have to be aggressively scaled back to keep climate change from worsening.

According to the study, a prolonged Arctic-air outbreak stemming from a weak and shifting polar vortex is more likely in North America beginning in the late winter and into early spring. This trend has been observed the past three winters.

Advertisement

The study comes as the Arctic has been setting records for warmth and sea ice loss and Greenland ice sheet melt. In September, the Arctic sea ice minimum hit the second-lowest level on record.

Scientists have for years forecast that human-caused global warming would be at least twice as fast in the Arctic as in the rest of the planet because of arctic amplification, a process in which white ice and snow is replaced by the dark blue sea or dark land that absorbs more solar rays that cause more melting.

Meanwhile, the Southwest as well as many other parts of the country are reporting historic hot weather and droughts this fall. Just last week dozens of cities reported record-breaking temperatures as unusually hot weather stretched through the Southwest and into the Northeast.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts a warm, dry winter for much of the country, according to the U.S. Winter Outlook published last week. But that doesn’t mean the polar vortex won’t be capable of bringing record cold days.