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 most of North America. In addition to the bomb cyclone battering the northeastern U.S. with ice and snow, the polar vortex will soon push frigid air straight from the arctic tundra into that region. But just what is this weather phenomenon?

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). 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 It?

So cold that frozen sharks are washing up on Cape Cod beaches. It's so cold that animal keepers at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada 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 are seeing single-digit temperatures and wind chills below zero.

But thankfully, the arctic freeze is not going to stick around forever: Temperatures for most of the U.S. will gradually warm up to average or above-average levels this month.

Britain Is in the Midst of a Rare ‘Wind Drought’


Generating renewable energy in Britain is a little less than a breeze these days: A “wind drought” is halting the country’s wind turbines.

This month’s wind energy output is down 40 percent from the same time last year, New Scientist reports. On average, about 15 percent of Britain’s electricity comes from wind power. Data starting from July 1 of this year put the monthly average closer to 6.9 percent. Last month, turbines were producing less than 2 percent of Britain’s electricity—the lowest output in two years.

That’s with even more wind turbines being installed over the course of the past year, New Scientist says. The data aren’t entirely surprising, though. The jet stream tends to make the UK’s weather drier and calmer during the summer and wetter and stormier during the winter. But the high pressure the jet stream has brought with it this year has been unusually prolonged, scientists say.

“It’s like a lid, it keeps everything still,” UK Met Office spokesperson Grahame Madge told New Scientist. “From the forecast looking out over the next couple of weeks, there doesn’t seem to be any significant change on the way.”

The wind drought shouldn’t cause too many problems in the short term. Electricity demand is low during the summer (very few British homes have air conditioning), and the country’s been able to compensate for the lack of wind by burning more natural gas. If the wind drought continues to persist, though, UK residents may begin to see an increase in utility fees. Natural gas prices have already risen with the increased demand.

“As we continue to transition to a low-carbon energy system, managing the intermittency of renewable power an important role in balancing supply and demand,” a National Grid spokesperson told New Scientist. “However, we have planned for these changes and [are] ready to play our part.”

The wind drought comes about eight years after British politicians vowed to reduce the UK's dependence on fossil fuels. Last year was the first year that electricity generated from low-carbon energy sources like solar power, wind power, and nuclear power outpaced high-carbon energy sources like coal and natural gas. This summer’s wind drought may make it difficult to improve on last year’s numbers.

[h/t New Scientist]

Why Does the Sky Look Green Before a Tornado?


A common bit of folklore from tornado-prone parts of the U.S. says that when the skies start taking on an emerald hue, it's time to run inside. But why do tornadoes tend to spawn green skies in the first place? As SciShow's Michael Aranda explains, the answer has to do with the way water droplets reflect the colors of the light spectrum.

During the day, the sky is usually blue because the shorter, bluer end of the light spectrum bounces off air molecules better than than redder, longer-wavelength light. Conditions change during the sunset (and sunrise), when sunlight has to travel through more air, and when storms are forming, which means there are more water droplets around.

Tornadoes forming later in the day, around sunset, do a great job of reflecting the green part of the light spectrum that's usually hidden in a sunset because of the water droplets in the clouds, which bounce green light into our eyes. But that doesn't necessarily mean a twister is coming—it could just mean a lot of rain is in the forecast. Either way, heading inside is probably a good idea.

For the full details on how water and light conspire to turn the sky green before a storm, check out the SciShow video below.


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