Denver, Colorado

The Polar Vortex Isn't What Twitter Says It Is

Posted by @mattmakens247wx


The term polar vortex has been thrown around all week to describe the bitter cold that has gripped much of the nation since last weekend. While trending highly in popularity, the term polar vortex is erroneous in how it has been used. The polar vortex lives near the North Pole region year round and isn't cold air, it is a low pressure area high in the atmosphere between 20-40,000 feet and higher. In the age of social media and "we'll do anything for clicks" -- that doesn't seem to matter.

It can give off a bit of its own energy to create a low pressure area that moves south into the United States, as it did this week, but that also resides well into the atmosphere.

via NWS New YorkAlthough popular in news headlines of late, it's highly inaccurate to say that the cold snap was the polar vortex. I guess its a sexier headline than saying something accurate, like "US hit by mass of cold air associated with an offshoot of the polar vortex!" But that's a horribly long #hashtag.

Since we are in the meteorologist capital of the country, I'm not the only local that wishes this headline would go away faster than it arrived! (Yes, I realize I'm perpetuating its existence by writing this post, but let me get it off my chest. . . thank you!).

Despite the hype of its name, this week's cold outbreak isn't as historic as news outlets would like us to believe. We've tracked these cold snaps before, obviously. A couple notable events were in January of 1977 and January 1985. If anything it's been abnormal not to see such a strong push of cold air in so many years.

Yes, a lot of record lows have been set, but to my knowledge, NO all-time monthly coldest temperature records have been set this time around, meaning it's been colder before in all of those east coast locations. The 1800s are when many all-time record lows were set, including Denver's coldest recorded temperature of -25 degrees from 1876. Denver also hit that all-time coldest temperature in 1990. Many of the east coast cities also had their all-time record lows set in the 1800s, some from the 1970s and 1980s, and a few from the 1990s.

The good news is that the pattern nationwide is becoming more progressive over the next few days. Warming temperatures will return to the areas hardest hit by this arctic cold and everyone can feel good in knowing it wasn't the polar vortex that got you, it was just winter!