Tuesday, January 7, 2014

3 "A-ha" Moments about the Polar Vortex: It's Not New

I am certain the term "derecho" is feeling slighted. Until recently, it was the "main star" in the News and Infotainment movie entitled "Weather and Climate Words New to the Media/Public, But Known by Weather-Climate Scientists for Decades".  Note: I am using a metaphors and analogies.

Recently, a new star has emerged in this movie, Polar Vortex. As the President of the American Meteorological Society (AMS),  I couldn't remain silent as media, public, and even some colleagues mischaracterize the term.

1. The term Polar Vortex has been around for many decades. The AMS Glossary of Meteorology (glossary.ametsoc.org), a trusted resource in our field, defines the Polar Vortex as: The planetary-scale cyclonic circulation, centered generally in the polar regions, extending from the middle troposphere to the stratosphere.The westerly airflow is largely a manifestation of the thermal wind above the polar frontal zone of middle and subpolar latitudes. The vortex is strongest in winter when the pole-to-equator temperature gradient is strongest. In the Northern Hemisphere, the vortex has two centers in the mean, one near Baffin Island and the other over northeast Siberia.

NASA also has a really informative website on the Polar Vortex at http://ozonewatch.gsfc.nasa.gov/facts/vortex_NH.html. This site describes the Arctic and Antarctic manifestations of the vortex.

I assure you that neither of these websites was created this week or to justify some hoax or position. My colleague Jeff Basara writes: "My search today found that the term "polar vortex" was first used in a technical report published by multiple authors from MIT in 1940 (Allen et al. - also included Jerome Namais who I think was one of the great synoptic meteorologists). By 1950 it had appeared in over a dozen scientific articles."

2. The Polar Vortex is NOT like a hurricane or tornado. While I appreciate the desire to simplify the discussion for the public, oversimplified examples can be misleading. In the past week, people have asked me if there is an "eye", does it come out of clouds, or can we see it with a satellite (yeah, sorta but not what you probably think). I ask that my colleagues, particularly those interacting with he public, convey proper scientific representation. In the age of social media, blogs, and abrasive article commentary, bad information spreads rapidly. On a related comment, just because you are familiar with someone or trust them for certain information, it doesn't make them an "expert" on every topic.

3. The linkages and discussions about polar vortex, cold, and climate are interesting and disturbing at the same time. There is an array of scientific literature discussing arctic oscillation, jet stream changes, climate change, and extremes (cold/wet/warm/etc). I encourage you to seek them out and educate yourself rather than take a "confirmation bias" position.  Some of the comments about cold weather-climate change immediately signify bias, lack of climate literacy, or a very linear way of thinking that is counter to how our atmosphere actually works. My previous blog, http://egyptsnowfallperspective.blogspot.com, addresses the challenge of cold weather vs climate change. Bob Henson, at UCAR, has also written a very informative discussion (http://www2.ucar.edu/atmosnews/opinion/10886/cold-hard-facts).

In the end, a term is not new just because are not familiar with it.  Most meteorologists and atmospheric scientists have known about the Polar Vortex for some time. We also knew what El Nino was before the 1998 El Nino. Derecho was a term before Washington D.C. experienced one.

It is breathtakingly worrisome to see science terms misused or exploited in public or political discourse. But for the science community, it is also an opportunity to educate or increase science literacy.

What science term is waiting to be the next star in our "aforementioned movie"..........?


  1. Couldn't agree more!.. I'm going to guess the next term to hit it big time will be "planetary wave". Honestly, how could that type of thing ever happen?! when it does, we’re in deep trouble! :)

  2. I the pasted I called it a strong cold front!