What is a Polar Vortex?

Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you’ve turned on the news or stepped outside lately, you're familiar with the record-breaking cold that is blanketing a lot of North America. According to The Washington Post, a mass of bone-chilling air over Canada—a polar vortex—split into three parts at the beginning of 2019, and one is making its way to the eastern U.S. Polar vortexes can push frigid air straight from the arctic tundra into more temperate regions. But just what is this weather phenomenon?

How does a polar vortex form?

Polar vortexes are basically arctic hurricanes or cyclones. NASA defines them as “a whirling and persistent large area of low pressure, found typically over both North and South poles.” A winter phenomenon, vortexes develop as the sun sets over the pole and temperatures cool, and occur in the middle and upper troposphere and the stratosphere (roughly, between six and 31 miles above the Earth’s surface).

Where will a polar vortex hit?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the vortexes move in a counterclockwise direction. Typically, they dip down over Canada, but according to NBC News, polar vortexes can move into the contiguous U.S. due to warm weather over Greenland or Alaska—which forces denser cold air south—or other weather patterns.

Polar vortexes aren't rare—in fact, arctic winds do sometimes dip down into the eastern U.S.—but sometimes the sheer size of the area affected is much greater than normal.

How cold is a polar vortex?

So cold that frozen sharks have been known to wash up on Cape Cod beaches. So cold that animal keepers at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada once decided to bring its group of king penguins indoors for warmth (the species lives on islands north of Antarctica and the birds aren't used to extreme cold.) Even parts of Alabama and other regions in the Deep South have seen single-digit temperatures and wind chills below zero.

But thankfully, this type of arctic freeze doesn't stick around forever: Temperatures will gradually warm up.

Lake Michigan Has Frozen Over, and It's an Incredible Sight

Scott Olson, Getty Images
Scott Olson, Getty Images

A polar vortex has brought deadly temperatures to the Midwest this week, and the weather is having a dramatic effect on one of the region's most famous features. As the Detroit Free Press reports, parts of Lake Michigan have frozen over, and the ice coverage continues to grow.

The Lake Michigan ice extent has increased rapidly throughout January, starting around 1 percent on the first of the month and expanding to close to 40 percent by the end of the month. Yesterday was the coldest January 30 in Chicago history, with temperatures at O'Hare Airport dropping to -23°F. Even though it's frozen, steam can be seen rising off Lake Michigan—something that happens when the air above the lake is significantly colder than the surface. You can watch a stream of this happening from a live cam below.

Lake Michigan's ice coverage is impressive, as these pictures show, but it's still far from breaking a record. Though Lake Michigan has never frozen over completely, it came close during the winter of 1993 to 1994 when ice reached 95 percent coverage.

Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana aren't the only places that have been hit hard by the cold this winter. At the United States/Canada border, Niagara Falls froze to a stop in some spots, a phenomenon that also produced some stunning photographs.


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[h/t Detroit Free Press]

Why You Need to Keep Your Car's Gas Tank Full in Cold Weather

iStock.com/Chalabala
iStock.com/Chalabala

Schools, trains, and the U.S. Postal Service have shut down this week as a polar vortex brings negative double-digit temperatures to the Midwest. Even if residents won't be doing much traveling as long as the dangerous weather persists, they'd benefit from keeping a full tank of gas in their cars: According to the Detroit Free Press, it's an easy way to prevent fuel lines from freezing.

One common reason cars struggle to start in cold weather is blocked-up fuel lines. These tubes are thin, and if there's any moisture in them when temperatures drop to extreme levels, they can freeze, causing blockages that prevent fuel from flowing.

Gasoline, on the other hand, doesn't freeze as easily. It maintains its liquid state in subzero temperatures, like those currently hitting parts of the U.S., so when a gas tank is full, those fuel lines are better equipped to handle to the cold.

If you filled up your tank before the recent cold snap and your car still won't start, it may have something to do with your antifreeze levels. Your car's radiator needs water to work properly, and antifreeze is what keeps the water liquid when temperatures dip below 32°F.

Of course, if temperatures have already dropped to dangerous levels in your area, it's not worth it to drive to the gas station to refuel or run out to stock up on antifreeze. Instead, keep these car maintenance tips in mind for the next time an arctic blast rolls in to town. And when it is safe enough to drive again, resist heating up your engine in the driveway: Letting your car idle in the cold can actually shorten the engine's lifespan.

[h/t Detroit Free Press]

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