A sudden stratospheric warming event has pushed the polar vortex off the North Pole, sending Arctic air on the move

The American model projection showing the polar vortex shifting southward and elongating across the northeast Atlantic and Northern Europe, extending toward Asia on Jan. 7. (
The American model projection showing the polar vortex shifting southward and elongating across the northeast Atlantic and Northern Europe, extending toward Asia on Jan. 7. ( 

By Andrew FreedmanJan. 5, 2021

A dramatic spike in temperatures is occurring at high altitudes above the North Pole, where the air is thin and typically frigid. Known as a sudden stratospheric warming event, experts say it’s likely to have potentially significant repercussions for winter weather across the Northern Hemisphere for weeks to possibly months.

This unusually strong event may have profound influences on the weather in the United States and Europe, possibly increasing the potential for paralyzing snowstorms and punishing blasts of Arctic air, with the odds of the most severe cold outbreaks highest in Northern Europe. The United States is slightly more of a winter wild card for now, experts say, with individual winter storms tough to predict beyond a few days in advance.

While occurring about 18 miles high in the sky and disconnected from the weather on the ground, stratospheric warming events can affect the polar vortex, which is a circulation of air around low pressure that acts as a repository for some of the coldest air on the planet.

If the polar vortex is strong and stable, as it was last winter, that cold air will stay bottled up over the Arctic, and snow chances may be few and far between for regions such as the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

But when the polar vortex weakens and wobbles off the pole, pieces of it can split off and swirl southward, affecting the United States, Europe and Asia. And that’s exactly what’s begun to happen, due in large part to this stratospheric temperature spike.

Predicting how the vortex split will affect our weather

To accurately forecast how winter weather may soon unfold in the United States and elsewhere, seasonal forecasters like Judah Cohen of Atmospheric and Environmental Research in Massachusetts are trying to figure out how the events in the stratosphere will ripple back downward into the troposphere, the layer of the atmosphere where most weather occurs.

Stratospheric warming events are a known, but not guaranteed, trigger for knocking the polar vortex off balance, like flicking a spinning top, forcing it to spin more slowly and erratically. They are triggered by an upward flow of energy in the form of “large-scale atmospheric waves” from the lower atmosphere, according to Amy Butler, a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chemical Sciences Laboratory.

Now, the stratosphere stands poised to transfer energy via downward-moving atmospheric waves into the lower atmosphere, where it can help determine which areas get buried in blizzards while others see unusually mild conditions.

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