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.

Denver's Temperature Dropped a Record 64 Degrees In 24 Hours

Leonid Ikan/iStock via Getty Images
Leonid Ikan/iStock via Getty Images

One sure sign summer is over: On Wednesday, residents of Denver, Colorado were experiencing a comfortable 82-degree day. Just before midnight, the temperature dropped to 29 degrees. Between Wednesday and Thursday afternoon, the Denver airport recorded a differential of 79 degrees down to 24 degrees. At one point on Wednesday, a staggering 45-degree drop was seen in the span of just three hours.

All told, a one-day span saw a 64-degree change in temperature, from a high of 83 to a low of 19, a record for the state in the month of October and just two degrees shy of matching Denver’s all-time record drop of 66 degrees on January 25, 1872. On that date, the temperature plummeted from 46 degrees to -20 degrees.

Back to 2019: Citizens tried their best to cope with the jarring transition in their environment, to mixed success. On Wednesday, the city’s Washington Park was full of joggers and shorts-wearing outdoor enthusiasts. Thursday, only the most devoted runners were out, bundled up against the frigid weather.

The cold snap also brought with it some freezing drizzle which prompted several vehicular accidents, including 200 reported during Thursday's morning commute. It’s expected to warm up some in the coming days, but residents shouldn't get too comfortable: Melting ice could lead to potholes.

[h/t KRDO]

Fall Foliage Is Running Late This Year

Free art director/iStock via Getty Images
Free art director/iStock via Getty Images

The August arrival of the pumpkin spice latte might have you feeling like fall is in full swing already, but plants aren’t quite so impressionable. According to Travel + Leisure, the best fall foliage could be coming a little later than usual this year.

Historically, the vibrant transformation starts to sweep through northern regions of the Rocky Mountains, Minnesota, and New England in mid-September, and reaches its peak by the end of the month. Other areas, including the Appalachians and Midwest states, don’t see the brightest autumn leaves until early or mid-October. The Weather Channel reports that this year, however, the forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts unseasonably warm temperatures for the next two weeks, which could impede the color-changing process.

Warm temperatures aren’t necessarily bad for fall foliage, as long as they occur during the day and are offset by cool nights. Since meteorologists don’t expect the overnight temperatures to drop off yet, plants will likely continue producing enough chlorophyll to keep their leaves green in the coming days.

The good news is that this year’s fall foliage should only be about a week late, and meteorologist David Epstein thinks that when leaves do start to change color, we’re in for an especially beautiful treat. If the current weather forecast holds, he told Boston.com, we'll "see a longer season than last year, we’d see a more vibrant season than last year, and it would come on a little earlier than last year, which was so late.”

Though poor weather conditions like early snow, heavy rain, drought, or strong winds can cause leaves to fall prematurely, most trees right now are in a good position to deliver a brilliant display of color after a healthy, rain-filled summer.

Find out when you’ll experience peak fall foliage in your area with this interactive map.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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