Currently — February 27th, 2023

What you need to know, currently.

This week, almost 1 million utility customers across Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, California, Oregon, Arizona and New York lost power. Minnesota shut down its legislature and several schools. More than 200 miles of highway between Arizona and New Mexico are closed due to wind gusts of 80 miles per hour. And, Los Angeles County had its first blizzard since 1989.

If you’re wondering why the United States was hit with harsher-than-normal winter storms this week—complete with heavy snowfall as well as travel and power-disrupting winds—it’s just the latest extreme weather that’s influenced by the warming Arctic and climate change.

The Arctic is warming about four times faster than the rest of planet, which destabalizes a high-altitude current of air, the jet stream. Usually, it stays circling the Arctic, containing its frigid air to that region. However, when it weakens, its pathway does, too. As it loses momentum, pockets of cold Siberian air can disrupt weather patterns in extreme ways.

The masses of freezing air that sits above the North Pole and Antarctica are called polar vortexes.

“The polar vortex is a large area of low pressure and cold air surrounding both of the Earth’s poles,” according to the National Weather Service. “It ALWAYS exists near the poles, but weakens in summer and strengthens in winter. The term ‘vortex’ refers to the counter-clockwise flow of air that helps keep the colder air near the Poles.”

Though the term has become popular in recent years, it’s important to note that not every winter storm or extreme cold weather event is caused by a polar vortex. While climate change is indeed resulting in the breaks of Arctic air coming down the US and blizzard conditions, the brutal cold is not the polar vortex.

When the polar vortex is interrupted, it usually has mild consequences. But, some researchers have attributed the more extreme and moody swings in the jet stream to climate change. As a result, cold air is sent southward and is associated with big, radical, and oftentimes, unpredictable outbreaks of Arctic air in the United States. Parts of Europe and Asia also experience cold surges associated with the polar vortex.

Polar vortex or not, it’s important to be prepared—particularly for those who aren’t used to handling unpredictable winter storms like these. Make sure your home and car emergency kits are packed at the beginning of each winter season, so you can be safe from any kind of hazardous weather.

—Aarohi Sheth

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