Return of the Polar Vortex

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 2:06 PM GMT on January 21, 2014

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It's "The Return of the Polar Vortex" over the much of the eastern half of the U.S. this week, as another round of bitterly cold Arctic air plunges southwards out of Canada. Like many sequels, "The Return of the Polar Vortex" will not be as impressive as the original, with temperatures averaging about ten degrees warmer than during the original Polar Vortex episode earlier this January. Still, with temperatures 15 - 25° colder than average expected over much of the eastern half of the U.S. Tuesday through Thursday, this week's sequel is a respectable cold blast. The cold air is centered over the Upper Midwest, and low temperatures in portions of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan dropped below -20° early Tuesday morning. Crane Lake, Minnesota bottomed out at a bone-chilling -32°F this morning, and Pellston, Michigan hit -25°.

On Wednesday, the cold air spills southeastwards over much of the Ohio Valley, Mid-Atlantic, and New England, in the wake of Winter Storm Janus. The powerful storm is expected to bring 4 - 8" of snow to Washington D.C. on Tuesday, and 6 - 12" to Philadelphia, New York City, Providence, and Boston, Tuesday night through Wednesday. The most dangerous conditions are expected on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where 8 - 12" of snow with sustained winds of 20 - 30 mph, gusting to 50 mph are expected. A blizzard warning is posted there.


Figure 1. Lake Erie lies 90% covered in ice on January 9, 2014, after the intense "Polar Vortex" cold air outbreak over eastern North America that week. The cold air brought the Great Lakes their highest ice coverage in 20 years for that time of year. Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory.

What is the Polar Vortex?
It's curious that the media latched on to the term "Polar Vortex" earlier this month. It's a term that has been around for a long time, but is generally not used by meteorologists in their public discussions of weather, since it is a rather technical term. NOAA has this explainer of the Polar Vortex, and TWC meteorologist Stu Ostro also has a nice description in his latest blog post, Polar Vortex, Global Warming, and Cold Weather. A short excerpt here:

  • A polar vortex is not only not something new or mysterious, it's a standard feature of the atmosphere, strongest in winter. The term has been used in the scientific literature at least back as far as 1939 in a paper by Rossby. This meteorological phenomenon has likely been present for as long as there has been weather on Earth.

  • A polar vortex is a large circulation in the upper atmosphere that has generally west-to-east winds circling the Earth. It's not a cold wave or a storm. As the name implies, polar vortexes (or vortices -- either is grammatically correct) are usually centered in the polar regions, one near the North Pole and another near the South Pole.
Polar Bear on Holiday (Timsphotos)
Met this fellow enjoying the sun in Santa Caterina. Dont know where his ski equipment is though...
Polar Bear on Holiday
Ice and fog (lablover47)
At zero degrees, with sun and fog, the bay was a spooky place when the 1,000-foot Edgar Speer arrived in Sturgeon Bay.
Ice and fog

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284. georgevandenberghe
3:36 AM GMT on January 22, 2014
Quoting 256. ricderr:
and as more report in on snowmegeddon....let me add


here in el paso....


today to date: 0" snow
expected snowfall 0"


Only 5" less than in Suburban MD.
Member Since: February 1, 2012 Posts: 17 Comments: 1585
283. weatherbow
8:29 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
From the latest NESDIS Satellite Precip Estimates:

LATEST WATER VAPOR IMAGERY DEPICTS
HIGHLY DYNAMIC SET UP WITH POTENT SHORT WAVE PIVOTING THROUGH E TN/
W CAROLINAS AT THIS TIME AS SFC LOW INVOF SE VA HAS HAS HELPED INCREASE
LOW LEVEL CONVERGENCE. NOT THE BEST SATELLITE PRESENTATION IN TERMS OF
IR..HOWEVER, IR DOES INDICATE INCREASING ENHANCEMENT IN SW AND CENTRAL
VA AS ENERGY ASSOCIATED WITH S/WV HAS INCREASED UPPER LEVEL DIVERGENCE.
THE BLENDED TPW PRODUCT HAS ALSO SHOWN MOISTURE BEGIN TO WRAP UP THE
EAST COAST AND PIVOT BACK INTO HEAVY SNOW REGION INVOF SE NJ WHERE
PWATS JUST OFFSHORE ARE APPROACHING .6". GENERALLY EXPECT HEAVY SNOW TO
CONTINUE IN DEFORMATION AXIS FROM DC NE TO BOSTON WHERE 1-2"+/HR RATES
POSSIBLE IN BEST BANDS. RAP MODEL INDICATED REGION OF BEST LIFT/MAXIMUM
OMEGAS REMAINING FROM DC TO SE SOUTHERN NEW ENGLAND AND EXPECT ADDITIONAL
DEVELOPMENT ON SOUTHERN EDGE JUST SW OF DC AS S/WV CONTINUES TO PIVOT
SE...ALSO EVIDENT IN NEW ENHANCEMENT SEEN IN IR/VIS TRENDS IN CENTRAL VA.
Member Since: May 25, 2013 Posts: 0 Comments: 132
282. hurricanes2018
8:28 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
one hour of heavy snow 3 inches of snow!!
Member Since: March 12, 2013 Posts: 8 Comments: 12850
281. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
8:27 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Quoting 276. weatherbow:
I just saw a person walking outside in shorts...

It looks like a blizzard outside, and there are people in shorts


I just sweep the front step of the building off in shorts hoodie and steel toe work shoes took about 15 mins at 1.5 f no chill protected from wind
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 168 Comments: 53285
280. WunderAlertBot (Admin)
8:26 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
JeffMasters has created a new entry.
279. Climate175
8:25 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Quoting 267. GeorgiaStormz:
I saw a flurry today


#ByeGuysINeed2GoCry
See how it feels.
Member Since: September 24, 2013 Posts: 7 Comments: 3181
278. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
8:24 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 168 Comments: 53285
277. ncstorm
8:23 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Quoting 274. air360:


Only thing I can say is that if you look on the radar back towards Charlotte that is the main band that will potentially give us whatever snow we will see...It appears to be rapidly developing...so our main hope is that southern portion of that will continue to keep developing southward enough to give you/me some snow for a little bit without missing us to the N


the cold air got to here before that band or we will be looking at rain..again as usual
Member Since: August 19, 2006 Posts: 13 Comments: 14257
276. weatherbow
8:23 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
I just saw a person walking outside in shorts...

It looks like a blizzard outside, and there are people in shorts
Member Since: May 25, 2013 Posts: 0 Comments: 132
275. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
8:22 PM GMT on January 21, 2014


Toronto Pearson Int'l Airport
Date: 3:00 PM EST Tuesday 21 January 2014
Condition:Mainly Sunny
Pressure:30.2 inches
Tendency:falling
Visibility:15 miles
Temperature:1.2°F
Dewpoint:-11.9°F
Humidity:54%
Wind:N 11 mph
Wind Chill: -15

Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 168 Comments: 53285
274. air360
8:21 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Quoting 268. ncstorm:
NWS, Wilmington, NC..I hope they wrong..

.NEAR TERM /THROUGH TONIGHT/...
AS OF 300 PM TUESDAY...A WINTER WX ADVISORY IS POSTED FOR INLAND
PENDER...BLADEN...AND ROBESON COUNTY FOR UP TO AN INCH OF SNOW
OVERNIGHT...WITH LESSER AMOUNTS TO JUST FLURRIES POTENTIALLY
ACROSS THE NORTHERN PORTIONS OF COLUMBUS...BRUNSWICK...AND NEW
HANOVER COUNTIES. BEST TIMING OF SNOWFALL IS FROM 2Z/9PM OVER
ROBESON COUNTY PROGRESSING EASTWARD ACROSS THE NORTHERN TIER OF
ZONES TO INLAND PENDER COUNTY AROUND 5Z/MIDNIGHT...THEN OFF THE
COAST COMPLETELY BY 7Z-8Z/2AM-3AM.


Only thing I can say is that if you look on the radar back towards Charlotte that is the main band that will potentially give us whatever snow we will see...It appears to be rapidly developing...so our main hope is that southern portion of that will continue to keep developing southward enough to give you/me some snow for a little bit without missing us to the N
Member Since: October 13, 2002 Posts: 0 Comments: 273
273. washingtonian115
8:20 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Quoting 267. GeorgiaStormz:
I saw a flurry today


#ByeGuysINeed2GoCry
Now you guys know how I felt for three years.
Member Since: August 14, 2010 Posts: 10 Comments: 16327
272. wilsongti45
8:19 PM GMT on January 21, 2014


Buoy 75nm east of Long Beach NJ.
Member Since: February 20, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 157
271. hurricanes2018
8:17 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
heavy snow here!!!
Member Since: March 12, 2013 Posts: 8 Comments: 12850
270. PedleyCA
8:13 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Quoting 259. ricderr:
Riverside, California (Airport)
Updated: 11:53 AM PST on January 21, 2014
Clear
79 °F/26.11 °C





has the snow started accumulating at your place yet ped???


Nope, but that would be OK with me. I clicked on one of my PWS links this morning and that one is using the Beta site and it came back with 10.6 as a temp. It didn't say F or C and I knew it wasn't right because I had been outside. It changed after a bit to 51.08 That PWS was reporting old reading anyways, but it was amusing.
Member Since: February 29, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 5636
269. Patrap
8:13 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 419 Comments: 127377
268. ncstorm
8:13 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
NWS, Wilmington, NC..I hope they wrong..

.NEAR TERM /THROUGH TONIGHT/...
AS OF 300 PM TUESDAY...A WINTER WX ADVISORY IS POSTED FOR INLAND
PENDER...BLADEN...AND ROBESON COUNTY FOR UP TO AN INCH OF SNOW
OVERNIGHT...WITH LESSER AMOUNTS TO JUST FLURRIES POTENTIALLY
ACROSS THE NORTHERN PORTIONS OF COLUMBUS...BRUNSWICK...AND NEW
HANOVER COUNTIES. BEST TIMING OF SNOWFALL IS FROM 2Z/9PM OVER
ROBESON COUNTY PROGRESSING EASTWARD ACROSS THE NORTHERN TIER OF
ZONES TO INLAND PENDER COUNTY AROUND 5Z/MIDNIGHT...THEN OFF THE
COAST COMPLETELY BY 7Z-8Z/2AM-3AM.
Member Since: August 19, 2006 Posts: 13 Comments: 14257
267. GeorgiaStormz
8:11 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
I saw a flurry today


#ByeGuysINeed2GoCry
Member Since: February 11, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 9718
266. Climate175
8:11 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Quoting 263. GeorgiaStormz:
Is the snow leaving DC already?

Didnt seem to be there that long, just got back and checked radar.
Nope the worst is yet to come between now and around midnight.
Member Since: September 24, 2013 Posts: 7 Comments: 3181
265. washingtonian115
8:10 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Quoting 263. GeorgiaStormz:
Is the snow leaving DC already?

Didnt seem to be there that long, just got back and checked radar.
The snow is not leaving D.C for another few hours.
Member Since: August 14, 2010 Posts: 10 Comments: 16327
264. nonblanche
8:10 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Quoting 235. wxgeek723:


Coastal areas of South Jersey are actually getting dry slotted right now.

Very different story further inland.


Thank you very much!

Took me a minute, but I was able to place the camera - triangulating between the Trop and the Claridge, the camera's about two, maybe four blocks from my mom's old apartment building, corner of Pennsyvania & Atlantic (burned down in 1980 or so, a few months after she sold it.)

That dryslotting happened a lot as I remember. Mom used to say it was all the salt air melting the snow, and I guess growing up in Poland and her wartime years meant that this did not bother her at all.
Member Since: October 21, 2010 Posts: 2 Comments: 243
263. GeorgiaStormz
8:07 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Is the snow leaving DC already?

Didnt seem to be there that long, just got back and checked radar.
Member Since: February 11, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 9718
262. SouthCentralTx
8:06 PM GMT on January 21, 2014



oh no, I want snow not freezing rain...
Member Since: March 19, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 225
261. Climate175
8:05 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Quoting 257. weatherbow:


That farmers almanac prediction may be coming true.
The Farmers Almanac is predicting many snowstorms for Feb.
1st-3rd. Intense storm, heavy rain, snow, strong winds. This could seriously impact Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2, which will be played for the 1st time at a cold weather site (New Jersey's MetLife Stadium). Here is one.
Member Since: September 24, 2013 Posts: 7 Comments: 3181
260. washingtonian115
8:05 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Quoting 254. Doppler22:

No its Brooklyn, sorry for not saying. And haha yes how lucky for NYC.
Ah okay.What about the first pic with the coastal storm next weekend?.Lucky N.Y..Winds are blowing hard.A heavy snow band is moving towards the city.
Member Since: August 14, 2010 Posts: 10 Comments: 16327
259. ricderr
8:04 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Riverside, California (Airport)
Updated: 11:53 AM PST on January 21, 2014
Clear
79 °F/26.11 °C





has the snow started accumulating at your place yet ped???
Member Since: June 27, 2006 Posts: 670 Comments: 21322
258. Doppler22
8:04 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
5 accidents currently in my area. Glad to hear as of now that nobody has been seriously hurt today. Hope that continues.
Member Since: February 13, 2012 Posts: 11 Comments: 3626
257. weatherbow
8:03 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Quoting 250. washingtonian115:
Is this Downtown D.C?. Another Blizzard or snow storm for super bowl weekend?.Bad timing.


That farmers almanac prediction may be coming true.
Member Since: May 25, 2013 Posts: 0 Comments: 132
256. ricderr
8:03 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
and as more report in on snowmegeddon....let me add


here in el paso....


today to date: 0" snow
expected snowfall 0"
Member Since: June 27, 2006 Posts: 670 Comments: 21322
255. PedleyCA
8:03 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Riverside, California (Airport)
Updated: 11:53 AM PST on January 21, 2014
Clear
79 °F/26.11 °C
Clear
Humidity: 7%
Dew Point: 9 °F/-12.78 °C
Wind: 7 mph from the ENE
Pressure: 30.08 in (Falling)
Visibility: 10.0 miles

Colby Fire Update

Current Situation
Total Personnel 299
Size 1,952 acres
Percent Contained 95%
Estimated Containment Date Wednesday January 22nd, 2014 approx. 12:00 AM
Member Since: February 29, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 5636
254. Doppler22
8:02 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Quoting 250. washingtonian115:
Is this Downtown D.C?. Another Blizzard or snow storm for super bowl weekend?.Bad timing.

No its Brooklyn, sorry for not saying. And haha yes how lucky for NYC.
Member Since: February 13, 2012 Posts: 11 Comments: 3626
253. Climate175
8:02 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Quoting 246. washingtonian115:
Some conversational flakes on Thursday..repeat on Sunday..Henry says to watch out for February.
I have always said to watch for a stormy Feb.
Member Since: September 24, 2013 Posts: 7 Comments: 3181
252. Climate175
8:01 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
About 3 inches here now.
Member Since: September 24, 2013 Posts: 7 Comments: 3181
251. ricderr
8:00 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Friend of mine in Bensalem, just NE of Philly, says she has 7 inches. She would have been under the persistent snow band that plagued I-95 today.


bensalem is beautiful country
Member Since: June 27, 2006 Posts: 670 Comments: 21322
250. washingtonian115
7:59 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Quoting 245. Doppler22:
Is this Downtown D.C?.
Quoting 244. Doppler22:
Another Blizzard or snow storm for super bowl weekend?.Bad timing.
Member Since: August 14, 2010 Posts: 10 Comments: 16327
249. Doppler22
7:58 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Mayor Marty Walsh has already canceled #Boston schools for tomorrow.
Member Since: February 13, 2012 Posts: 11 Comments: 3626
248. wxgeek723
7:57 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Well, here in New Jersey we know Christie as the disaster governor, even before Sandy. It's only appropriate he has to declare a State of Emergency the day of his inauguration.
Member Since: August 28, 2008 Posts: 79 Comments: 3429
247. Doppler22
7:56 PM GMT on January 21, 2014


@USNavy The weather doesn't stop us from honoring a shipmate at @ArlingtonNatl.
Member Since: February 13, 2012 Posts: 11 Comments: 3626
246. washingtonian115
7:52 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Some conversational flakes on Thursday..repeat on Sunday..Henry says to watch out for February.
Member Since: August 14, 2010 Posts: 10 Comments: 16327
245. Doppler22
7:51 PM GMT on January 21, 2014

NYC
Member Since: February 13, 2012 Posts: 11 Comments: 3626
244. Doppler22
7:50 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Member Since: February 13, 2012 Posts: 11 Comments: 3626
243. StormWx
7:49 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Quoting Tropicsweatherpr:
Off-Topic=And the dip at Nino 3.4 continues.

CPC 1/21/14 update dips to La Nina threshold at -0.7C



Oh oh, stormstrackerscott will NOT like this graph! He was called for El Nino all year :) Clearly not the case, and looks like we may have neutral conditions for this hurricane season?
Member Since: July 10, 2013 Posts: 0 Comments: 894
242. AGWcreationists
7:45 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Quoting 218. ricderr:
Up to 6 inches of snow reported in parts of the Philadelphia area - @TWCBreaking
Friend of mine in Bensalem, just NE of Philly, says she has 7 inches. She would have been under the persistent snow band that plagued I-95 today.
Member Since: November 25, 2009 Posts: 0 Comments: 489
241. weatherbow
7:42 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Quoting 239. washingtonian115:
The roads are almost identical here expect for the busiest roads like in Downtown.


I don't know how the main roads are here. I haven't been outside since 9AM.

Maybe if the snow decides to crank up and get heavier, we could see all the roads look like the local secondary roads...
Member Since: May 25, 2013 Posts: 0 Comments: 132
240. Doppler22
7:39 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Shew... The snow is coming down hard! Blowing like crazy! Can't see out my front window!
Member Since: February 13, 2012 Posts: 11 Comments: 3626
239. washingtonian115
7:38 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Quoting 229. weatherbow:
Outside my house right now...

The roads are almost identical here expect for the busiest roads like in Downtown.
Member Since: August 14, 2010 Posts: 10 Comments: 16327
238. Tropicsweatherpr
7:38 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Off-Topic=And the dip at Nino 3.4 continues.

CPC 1/21/14 update dips to La Nina threshold at -0.7C

Member Since: April 29, 2009 Posts: 75 Comments: 13931
237. air360
7:37 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Random question and a bit off topic.

Has anyone ever thought about building a weather model that learns from it's mistakes and improves itself?

From my understanding weather models run independent of each other - meaning the program has no idea what its previous runs said or showed...every run is isolated to itself.

With all the technology and AI we have it would be cool if the model could "learn from it's mistakes" and use previous runs to compare to what has really happened and learn why things do what they do...

I think you know what i mean....that would be awesome.
Member Since: October 13, 2002 Posts: 0 Comments: 273
236. wilsongti45
7:35 PM GMT on January 21, 2014


Convective banding at the bottom of the image. The low is starting to deepen.
Member Since: February 20, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 157
235. wxgeek723
7:35 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Quoting 212. nonblanche:


I don't know why I'm torturing myself reading this.

(Atlantic City High School Class of '81, currently living with goats in the Lahontan Basin, Nevada)

Actually I'd love to see (still torturing myself) if there are any reports from AC. Still have fond memories of '77/78 winter.


Coastal areas of South Jersey are actually getting dry slotted right now.

Weather cam at NY Ave:


Very different story further inland.
Member Since: August 28, 2008 Posts: 79 Comments: 3429
234. Climate175
7:34 PM GMT on January 21, 2014
Quoting 225. washingtonian115:
It's just getting started according to Gary McdGrady.
What did he say on Fox 5?
Member Since: September 24, 2013 Posts: 7 Comments: 3181

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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.