National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory
NOAA What's going on with the Polar Vortex?
January 6, 2014

Polar Vortex and Extreme Weather
Friday, Jan 10, 2014 at 2pm ET - Jim Overland on panel for on the Polar Vortex
Watch the video of the White House Google+ Hangout & watch for the wrap up blog post to be posted on

PMEL's Dr. Jim Overland explains how the warm Arctic relates to the extreme cold experienced by the U.S. in January 2014

  Jim Overland
  PMEL's Dr. Jim Overland  

What is the Polar Vortex?

Colder temperatures to the north and warmer temperatures to the south create winds that generally blow from west to east around the northern hemisphere. This atmospheric river of strong winds can vary from a straight west-to-east pattern, to a more wavy pattern. With the wavy pattern, cold air from the north can be carried south.

Is there a connection between the polar vortex that is occurring across parts of the country and climate change?

 In the last five years, we’ve seen the jet stream take on more a wavy shape (left hand map below) instead of the more typical nice oval around the North Pole (right hand map below). This waviness is leading to colder weather down in the eastern U.S. and eastern Asia. Whether this is normal randomness or related to the significant climate changes occurring in the Arctic is not entirely clear, especially when considering individual events, but less sea ice and snow cover in the Arctic and relatively warmer Arctic air temperatures at the end of autumn suggest a more wavy pattern to the jet stream and more variability between the straight and wavy pattern.

This previous fall and the major cold event in early January show such variability. The connection between the Arctic warming trend and more severe weather in the mid-latitudes is an active area of research.

What is going on now?

  map showing jet stream on Jan 6, 2014   map showing jet stream December 15-17, 2013
  Regions of light blue color show the "wavy" counter-clockwise path of the jet stream for January 6, 2014. The map in white near the bottom center shows the outline of the U.S.   Regions of light blue color show a more circular flow for the jet stream during the period December 15-17, 2013. Credit ESRL/PSD.

The jet stream for January 6, 2014 (pale blue in left hand map) follows a wavy pattern over the whole Northern Hemisphere, and the path of the jet stream is out of the north over the central U.S., bringing cold air southward from the Arctic and producing record cold temperatures for the eastern half of the U.S..

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