Much of the United States is being battered by bizarre winter weather this week, which trapped snowbound drivers in their cars, prompted airlines to cancel thousands of flights and knocked out power for at least one million properties across the country. It’s the latest disruption to the planet’s typical winter weather patterns caused by a teetering of the northern polar vortex—something researchers say is happening more frequently in part because of global warming.
That’s because the Arctic is warming some four times faster than the rest of the Earth, which destabilizes a fast, high-altitude current of air called the jet stream. That current encircles the Arctic, essentially containing the frigid air in that region and preventing it from creeping down into lower latitudes, including most of the United States. When the jet stream weakens, its pathway can wobble, much like a spinning top losing momentum, and pockets of cold Siberian air can then break out and scramble weather patterns in unpredictable and radical ways.
The swirling mass of freezing air that hangs above the North Pole is known as the polar vortex. Another polar vortex spins above Antarctica. And while disruptions to the northern polar vortex occur somewhat regularly—two out of every three winters on average, with many occurrences yielding mild consequences—some researchers have linked climate change to more extreme and persistent swings in the jet stream.
“Not everybody agrees with us. It’s still contested science, but I am confident that we’ll see more and more examples of these stretching events in the stratosphere followed shortly after by cold snaps in the midlatitudes as the Arctic climate warms and changes,” Judah Cohen, an atmospheric scientist who published a 2021 study that found polar vortex events have become more common since 1980, told SciTechDaily last month. “The stretching of the polar vortex we saw in December 2022 definitely fits that pattern.”
In 2021, a disruption to the polar vortex catapulted bitter Arctic air deep into the central U.S., causing a deadly blackout in Texas when subzero temperatures crippled the natural gas power plants that fed the state’s electrical grid. A similar cold snap, dubbed “the Beast from the East,” occurred in 2018, sending pockets of freezing air into lower latitudes of the U.S. and Europe.
This week, the disruption appears to be playing out in two ways. While the U.S. is being pummeled by strong winter storms, the North Pole’s mass of cold air is now wobbling toward Europe, where temperatures are expected to drop as low as 14 degrees Fahrenheit in early March.
The U.S. storms, which began in some places as early as Tuesday night, caused havoc in nearly every part of the country. By Thursday afternoon, more than 930,000 utility customers living across Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, California, Oregon, Arizona and New York had lost power, according to a website that tracks outages in real time. Hundreds of thousands of customers remained without power as of Friday morning, the website showed.
The week’s storms prompted Minnesota to shut down its legislature and some schools. They made many of southern Wyoming’s roads “impassable,” according to the state’s transportation department, and prompted officials to close more than 200 miles of highway between Arizona and New Mexico, where wind gusts reached 80 miles per hour. They blanketed the Cascade Mountains with deep snow and strong winds, preventing search and rescue teams from reaching the bodies of three climbers killed in an avalanche over the weekend. And they toppled trees and power lines in California, including one tragic incident Tuesday evening when a redwood crashed into a home and critically injured a 1-year-old child.
In fact, Los Angeles County got its first blizzard since 1989, and San Bernardino County issued its first ever blizzard warning, which stays in effect through Saturday. “Travel will be VERY DIFFICULT TO IMPOSSIBLE due to the extremely heavy snow and extremely high winds expected,” the San Diego division of the National Weather Service warned in a tweet Thursday.
Storms in the Midwest are now expected to head to the East Coast, forecasters said, possibly bringing harsh conditions and colder temperatures to places like New England, which has seen a particularly mild winter so far.
Scientists are still figuring out all the implications that come with the warming Arctic, including what more frequent disruptions of the polar vortex could mean for places like North America and Europe. As the planet warms, some data suggests that the kind of extreme cold snaps we’re seeing now are becoming less cold, and that winters are generally becoming milder.
Still, experts warn that the shorter-term impacts could still be very dangerous, especially for states that aren’t used to handling harsh and sometimes unpredictable winter storms like the ones we’re seeing this week.
“As we have seen over the past several years, severe winter storms can be dangerous and deadly,” Terran Kirksey, a meteorologist and communications manager for the climate advocacy nonprofit Climate Signals, said in a press release this week. “As climate change continues, although winters are shorter and milder on average, and the number of winter storms will decrease overall, unusual high-impact winter storms and cold air outbreaks may become more of a risk.”
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