The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

El Nino, the Polar Vortex, AND Climate Change!


How many weather-and-climate-related buzzwords can you fit into a single week’s weather? All of them, apparently, since these phenomena are all interconnected. We can’t really say where one ends and other begins.

This week it finally feels like winter in the Eastern US. Denialers are, I am sure, imagining themselves vindicated. I can’t help feeling reassured myself, as though cold weather meant climate change isn’t as serious as I’d thought. Meanwhile, the British Isles drown and the North Pole melts.

A few days ago, one of history’s most powerful storms formed in the North Atlantic, near Iceland, and proceeded to slam to slam into Scotland and its neighbors with 100 MPH winds and dropped a huge amount of rain on areas already sodden from a series of floods in December. The storm, named Frank, was not a hurricane, but the distinction seems rather academic.

Frank blew a huge amount of warm air north, over the pole. There isn’t much in the way of weather instruments up there, but from what data we have and from computer modeling, it looks like the North Pole rose above the freezing point for a few hours—that’s fifty degrees Fahrenheit above average for this time of year.

But the cold air that had been over the pole before Frank blew in had to go somewhere, so it moved south and some of it is over my head right now.

So it’s not just that this week’s more seasonable weather is balanced by warmer weather elsewhere, it was actually caused by warmer weather elsewhere.

But what caused Frank?

Nobody seems exactly sure, although El Nino is a likely culprit. Since El Nino makes the Northern Hemisphere as a whole warmer and wetter, powerful winter storms become more likely. Others see it as a symptom of global warming, which also makes the planet warmer and wetter in a general way (that extra moisture has to come from somewhere, though, hence the droughts in some places). Of course, as I’ve explained, both can be true at once.

And now that Frank has heated up the North Pole, there are signs the Polar Vortex may be destabilizing again. The Polar Vortex, remember, is not a type of weather but a circular wind pattern, one that normally keeps cold air sequestered around the poles. When the Vortex weakens, it becomes excessively wavy, with some waves reaching down to freeze parts of the lower latitudes and other waves allowing warm air to edge poleward, as we have seen in recent years. We may be seeing it again.

And a weakened polar vortex could be caused by melting sea ice, which is definitely climate change, or in this case it could be caused by Frank, which might be climate change.

The important thing to remember in all of this is that all weather is related to other weather and is always caused by the various things that cause weather. Each incident can be explained, in isolation, without climate change, which is a long-term trend. That means that freakishly warm events, whatever their proximate cause, are happening more often than freakishly cold events.

If the weather seems odd these days, that’s because it is.

Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have two published novels and more on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

4 thoughts on “El Nino, the Polar Vortex, AND Climate Change!

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