I Sense A Disturbance In The Vortex

Was it really barely a week ago that I wrote a post entitled “Let Winter Be Winter”? Yes, it was – only a few days ago I was complaining about our eerily mild temperatures. And the weather gods could not resist the opportunity to make me the straight man in a little joke. The weather gods are evil.

polar vortex 2


Now comes an article in The Washington Post entitled “The polar vortex has fractured, and the eastern U.S. faces a punishing stretch of winter weather”. Before getting to the substance of the article, I’d like to ask if The Washington Post has considered hiring  any headline writers with a little more panache. Perhaps they could lure some talent away from The National Enquirer.

Also, what is a vortex, exactly? It has a definite science fiction ring to it: “We’ll need maximum warp drive to get through that vortex, captain!” Alternatively, it could be some kind of miracle fabric.

Apparently, though, the polar vortex is this high altitude band of extremely cold air that goes around and around in the vicinity of the arctic circle. When the polar vortex is calm, it entertains itself nicely and everything is fine. But if it is disturbed, it has a tantrum and throws streams of frigid air southward.

That’s how I understand it, anyhow. And now the northern polar vortex has been disrupted, and much of Canada and the USA is about to be put into the deep freeze. For more information, go read a blog by someone who actually knows stuff about science.

snow shoveling

To a certain extent, I’m happy about the polar vortex. Within reasonable limits, a cold winter is a good thing, less confusing to plants and gardeners. Cold weather helps control pests for the following year, especially those trying to move in from warmer climes.

But there is a point when cold weather turns uncivilized. Uncivilized cold weather has three characteristics:

  • The Cold Gets Painful. Which is to say, you go outside and you can feel your lungs and your nasal passages freeze. For me, that point is achieved somewhere between 15 and 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Beyond that the cold starts to feel unreasonable. FYI, winters in Chicago have gotten as cold as -27.
  • Repeated Heavy Snowfalls. I hate shoveling snow, it is my least favorite chore. This is particularly true when the city plows repeatedly barricade our driveway with scale models of the Himalaya mountains.
  • The Cold Won’t Go Away, Delaying the Arrival of Spring. This is what happened last year, and we may be about to go through the same thing again.

Are you anticipating colder temperatures from the polar vortex, and how do you feel about that?

58 Comments on “I Sense A Disturbance In The Vortex”

  1. I don’t really mind winter as long as it is cold enough to kill off pests. Like you I do mind that my nose hairs freeze and it is totally uncomfortable with all my winter gear on. If I hated cold weather I would move further south. What I don’t like is the back and forth. Sort of like the time when the government is messing with it flopping back and forth in fall and spring. Hot and cold. I like it to stay freezing or warm so as not to hurt the plants and confuse the gardener.

  2. We are supposed to get out first snowfall this weekend in the Detroit area. Yeah, our first real snowfall. All we’ve had so far is flurries. I keep data on my utility usage and I labeled the 2013-14 winter season as the ‘winter from hell’. That was also due to the polar vortex shifting far south as i recall. Bundle up!

  3. Here’s a good (easy) explanation of the polar vortex, but you nailed the general concept that it’s just cold Arctic air that dips farther south and can hang around for a while. A weird irony of climate change is that these events may become (are becoming?) more common, leading to the whiplash of warm winters and unseasonable thaws interspersed with extreme cold. https://insideclimatenews.org/news/02022018/cold-weather-polar-vortex-jet-stream-explained-global-warming-arctic-ice-climate-change

    I’m happy to take extreme cold in the middle of winter (how it should be, in a way), rather than weather weirdness at the earlier or later parts of the season when it’s more likely to disrupt the growing season and biological events. I find the more that I force myself to get out in cold weather, the easier it is– but perhaps I’ll buy some yarn so that I can stay in and knit if it’s below zero.

    Hang in there!

  4. Doesn’t look like it’s going to be anything out of the ordinary here – we’ll be having a few really cold days over the weekend, the lowest temp being -16C/3F on Sunday. I definitely enjoy a cold winter but, as you put it, reasonably so. Those couple of years when it went down to -40C (which is the point at which F meets C as it’s also -40F!) – well, those I could do without!

  5. As a petite old woman in her 70’s, I also hate dealing with shoveling! In my Camelot world there is no sleet, snow, ice, or freezing rain, or wintry mix on any paved areas, period! My sidewalks, driveway, alley, streets, parking lots, highways, and interstates are clear. Always. The snow sits gently in all other areas, looking picturesque and winterlike. A girl can dream, can’t she? I can’t imagine -27 degrees?!?!? Yikes.

  6. It’s going to get us too. A high of -2 F tomorrow and then lots of snow Sunday. The forecast has been saying anything from 14 to 24 inches! Weather is always interesting isn’t it? I’m always interested in record low temps for a given area, so I enjoyed finding out what yours is. And here I’m not even sure what our “official” record is…but in 2008 some areas around here got -55 F!

  7. It’s going to affect us even here in coastal Texas, although to date there aren’t any predictions of snow (to which most of us say, “Darn!”) I always measure the severity of winter by the number of times I have to drag plants into the house. So far for 2018/19 it’s been just once, and it looks like we might avoid a hard freeze with this one.

    The most memorable winter events I’ve experienced here are the Christmas Eve snow of a few years ago, when it was deep enough for sledding and snowmen. But most dramatic was the extended hard freeze of 1983. It went on for days, and literally was a killer; Galveston Bay froze, and when it thawed, all those fish that died were fairly aromatic. We’re not built for such weather. Irrigation systems and pipes froze everywhere. When the ones at my apartment complex froze, the concrete courtyard around the pool was flooded, and those of us with ice skates did the only reasonable thing — with hot rum punch after.

      • Oh, my yes. I judge winters by the number of times I have to haul plants into the house. So far, I’ve only done it once this year, but there are hints that a second freeze is on the way.

        You might get a kick out of seeing the pics in this post about our “Christmas Miracle” in 2004 — the year we got a foot of snow on Christmas Eve. There are enough photos to give you an idea of it, including a great one of the big snowman with a surfboard on the beach in Galveston.

  8. All this fractured vortex talk had checking my closet and clicking over to a weather site to see if pieces would be flying out west. Looks like we’ll continue to have mild temperatures to continue what is so far the warmest January on record for our region. On the upside of climate change, I always wondered what it would be like to garden in California and this is saving me the trouble and expense of actually moving there. Sorry that you have to shovel snow. While I love winter and the look of snow, shoveling it every winter would be a pain.

  9. I’d prefer that it get cold and stay cold. Today the temps are hovering around 32 and it looks icy out there from last night’s freezing rain. Unless that ice melts, we will have snow on top of it. I don’t mind cold temps as long as they stay above zero AND there is little or no wind. Oh, and there are no power outages.

  10. I’m a weird one in that I don’t mind the cold (though there is a limit and it is somewhere around 10 degrees) but somehow those same temps without snow are even worse. That’s what we’ve had most of this year. I’d welcome some snow at this point, but it seems that nearly every system is determined to stay south of us- which is insane because we are in Northern Wisconsin and we are the ones who are supposed to get dumped on, not Kansas City and D.C.!

  11. Like Peter said, the PNW is having the warmest January on record since record-keeping began (some time in the 1800s I think). It’s nice for gardening right now but doesn’t bode well for our snow-pack which provides water in the summer. I don’t miss the cold weather we used to get in Massachusetts. I don’t like sub-freezing temps either and shoveling snow was always a hated chore for me too.

  12. Well, thankfully, for our winter sojourn in Quebec, there’s not much snowshoveling, except for a very short segment to our mud room door. We happily have a farmer neighbor who comes by with his snowblower attachment and clears the parking area for a very modest fee.

    We do need to brush off all of the snow from the car each day; this morning, it was milder and the snow remnants turned to frost on the car window before the defroster took hold. Alarming, until it melted.

    We’re expecting that polar vortex cold overnight — the wind is howling now. -12 F is now predicted for tomorrow morning. Hmmm.

    That’s cold for us Southeastern folks, trying to experience a bit of winter here up north.

    Kudos to all of you who experience the trajectory of winter year-round, from fall to spring.

  13. The wettest fall in 25 years in western Virginia, with hurricane remnants supplemented by weekly rains, on into winter (which launched with nearly 2 feet of snow in early December). Now the remains of our recent 6 inches of snow are to be liquefied by an inch of rain tomorrow, followed by a howling wind Sunday, when the vortex arrives to flash freeze things.

    Let’s just say I’m grateful I didn’t get to plant that muhly grass last spring as I’d hoped to — because it would be dead as a doornail by the end of this month.

  14. We are having heatwave conditions here in Australia so your post is a timely reminder that things could be worse! We have had a week of temperatures around 40C … but talking to a cab driver from southern India ….In his home town it is 50C in summer! The wonder is that plants grow in such severe climates..

  15. Here it come! On a recent show on NPR, I heard that global warming actually encourages the polar vortex to make its way south. Cold air helps keep it in place, but warmer air allows it to escape, hence the really cold, snowy winters we have been having. A big storm is coming our way, too. The first but probably not the last of the season.

  16. I’ve gotten used to the cold somewhat; at least when it snows it’s warmer. I don’t mind shoveling snow except when I’m trying to dig out my car which is always a challenge because I am doomed to park on the street, so if they do plow…I inevitably get plowed in. It’s often the only time I see my neighbors, too. But on a larger scale, I am really not happy with the polar vortex being out of whack, and I’m afraid it’s only going to get worse.

  17. I love cold frosty weather, as long as the sun shines and it doesn’t last too long… Spring around mid-February would be nice. 😉 Hope your vortex (it does sound painful!) moves away soon and doesn’t hurt your garden too much. (Nor your lungs!)

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