Wild, Wild Weather: What Is a Polar Vortex?

Photo Courtesy: [Scott Olsen/Getty Images]

Winter of 2013–2014 has gone down in history for being notoriously cold. Many of us learned a new weather term when two familiar words were laid out on the weatherperson’s green screen. “Polar” and “vortex” historically weren’t put together, but, since that winter, the polar vortex is now referenced by meteorologists every year. Winter 2014 was full of cold-weather events: Niagara Falls froze over and New York City looked like a winter wonderland.

People were suddenly talking about the polar vortex the way they would a viral video. The conversation around the polar vortex was a critique of the term. People have even gone as far as calling the polar vortex a “media buzzword.” So, is the polar vortex just a salacious weather term? Or, is the polar vortex a very real thing that can tell us about the state of our planet?

And what is a polar vortex, anyway? Well, there are two of them here on Earth, on the North and South Poles. That takes care of the “polar” part, but what about the “vortex”? “Vortex” in this sense refers to the low-pressure air swirling around miles and miles above the Earth’s surface. Scientists have also viewed massive clouds at the poles of other planets. Here, we lay out everything you need to know about a polar vortex so you can see just how big of an impact it’s had on Earth.