The weather is everyone's favorite small talk subject. It's easy to chat about as we all experience it, and most of us tend to have the same opinions regarding it. We hate it when it's too cold, we hate it when it's too hot, and we hate it when the weather outcome does not match the predicted forecast.
So far, this winter has been chock full of surprises, with temperatures swinging wildly from one extreme to the other. The phenomenon behind these unexpected shifts is the polar vortex, a yearly occurrence that dictates how our winters will go.
Already it's been pretty wild, but there's still more to come as experts share what to expect in the coming weeks, including a potential polar vortex collapse event.
It's Been Cold Lately
You may be thinking, 'well it's winter, it's normal for it to be cold out', but the sudden and extreme cold experienced by many regions around the world over the past few weeks was far from the usual weather patterns seen during this time of year.
The temperatures were record-cold with an extremely quick onset. For many, it disappeared as quickly as it arrived, and now we're seeing rain instead of snow in the middle of winter.
That frozen burst was due to the polar vortex, one that has a lot more in store for us this year.
The Vortex Is Still Powering Up
As it does, we'll continue seeing some bizarre patterns in the weather, causing shifts in temperature we might not have been expecting given the time of year.
Before we get to that, what even is the polar vortex? During autumn, the polar regions begin to cool down rather rapidly as the sun gets lower, leading to less energy reaching the North Pole.
Despite this, the atmosphere in southern regions remains rather warm. That temperature difference between the polar and subtropical regions causes a large, low-pressure air circulation to form across the Northern Hemisphere. This is the polar vortex that dictates our winter weather.
It Reaches The Stratosphere
The upper portion of the vortex is steady and symmetrical, while the portion lower to the ground is uneven due to topographical features such as mountains acting as obstacles in its flow.
The irregular layout of the vortex as it moves across the planet's surface is what makes it able to cover so much ground, warping from a circle shape into a free-form blob with 'arms' that reach out into other regions. It often brings harsh drops in temperature and a flurry of winter storms across Canada, the Northern United States, much of Europe, and most of Russia.
Each year, the polar vortex we experience is different, some stronger than others and some bringing differing weather patterns.
The 2023 Polar Vortex Has Been Fascinating
Experts have noted a number of pressure anomalies in this year's vortex patterns, witnessed in both the lower and upper portions of the vortex. The anomalies closer to the ground appear to be stronger than those higher up, signifying higher levels of disruption in the vortex's flow on Earth's surface.
This increased instability enabled a release of freezing Arctic air further down into the United States than usual. At the same time, warmer currents made their way into the polar regions, causing a reversal of what's usually seen when it comes ripping through.
The Upper Vortex Is Holding Strong
Just not strong enough to help strengthen its lower half. The high-pressure shifts seen closer to home have had a mind of their own thus far, but that is soon to change.
Meteorologists have seen the upper vortex slowly but surely connecting with the lower portion, which will cause another wave of pressure changes and, in turn, alter the weather patterns once again.
This time, warm air will be replacing the cold, which means the new year will begin with uncharacteristically high temperatures for January and February. Some readers have already been experiencing it, the first spike of warmer weather arrived just after Christmas passed us by.
Not Just Warm Weather
It will also be surprisingly humid this winter. Again, some might have seen this already, with days of rain and high precipitation accompanying high humidity.
Mapping out the upcoming forecast across the United States shows that nearly every region will have above average temperature and precipitation in the weeks to come. The same goes for Europe, which is affected by the low-pressure surge in the North Atlantic, also causing a warm spell over most of the continent.
The Cold Could Return
Further data isn't set in stone quite yet, but analysis shows that around mid-January we might see another cold spell as the disrupted lower vortex continues to collide with it's upper counterpart, creating high-pressure anomalies in polar regions and low-pressure bubbles being pushed down further.
This pattern is more common, though, and one that's been witnessed before in previous years, it's just coming at the tail end of a strange set of movements from the vortex's winds.
Potential For Collapse
Some experts believe we're on our way to a polar vortex collapse event, or sudden stratospheric warming. Don't worry, it sounds a lot scarier than it is, and this wouldn't be the first time it's happened either. In fact, there was a sudden stratospheric warming event in the 2020/2021 winter season.
What does that mean weather-wise, though? A polar vortex collapse would usher in colder weather throughout the United States and other commonly affected areas. Not abnormally cold conditions, but an assured cold period nonetheless. A polar vortex collapse hasn't been guaranteed for this season just yet, but given the already strange behaviors we're seeing so far this year, experts are marking it down as a possibility.
The World Is So Complex
The amount of highly scientific systems yet completely natural systems that function around us (or perhaps despite us) every single day is astounding. It feels magical, the fact that every gust of wind and changing of the seasons has such a huge impact on billions of living people, yet we've developed in such a way that we're able to study, predict, and prepare for these events.
There's still much about the way the world works that we are utterly clueless about, but to have made it this far, to be able to measure something as vast as major wind patterns in the stratosphere, is a marvel. Every time you look up the next day's temperature to decide how you need to dress, there are thousands of years of human engineering behind that action, and that's worth celebrating.