The Polar Vortex

Every Day Stuff

It was Early in the winter of 2013/2014 when the term polar vortex crept into our lexicon. It became the superstar word for 2014. In a word it went viral. With each storm this winter (almost weekly), the repute accumulated. Somehow this weather system had failed all these years it to escape from the pages each of weather and climate textbooks. Now the 24/7 media cycle sensationalizes and motorizes the escape of our words into our culture.

The Early Days

After describing the trade winds air flow air flow from the Hadley cells in subtropical latitudes of both hemispheres and following George Hadley’s lead we will see Littell’s 1853 synthesis. I was introduced to the “vortex” in the 1960s as the circumpolar vortex.

After describing the trade wind air flow air flow from the Hadley cells in subtropical latitudes of both hemispheres and following George Hadley’s 1735 synthesis of global circulation concluded that there must be a return flow aloft must be from the west (westerly winds) at high altitudes. Littell’s air maps follows Hadley’s thinking and he characterizes the region of the anti-trades and on approach to the polar latitudes it is “whirled about the pole in a continued circular gale at last reaching the great polar vortex.” Source: “Air Maps”, Littell’s Living Age Map 495, 12 November 1853, p. 430. In the Google Books Collection.

From the Glossary

A planetary-scale mid-to high-latitude circumpolar cyclonic, extending from two centers Baffin Island and the other over northeast Siberia—with analogous circumpolar asymmetry atypical in the Southern Hemisphere. The westerly airflow is largely a manifestation of the thermal wind above the polar frontal zone of middle and subpolar latitudes. The vortex is strongest during the winter in the upper troposphere and stratosphere when the pole-to-equator temperature gradient is strongest. The stratosphere component of the circulation may be referred to separately as the “polar stratospheric vortex.” In summer the strongest westerly circulation is largely confined to the troposphere, and the polar stratospheric vortex reverses in the upper stratosphere because solar heating during the polar day.

From the Glossary of Meteorology
Published by the American Meteorological Society

Around the Solar System

Polar vortices are not restricted to Earth. Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn all have polar vortices. Even the moon Titan has vortices.


Saturn (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Jupiter (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Animation of Titan (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
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