Saturday, March 28, 2015

Polar vortex getting its 15 minutes

After spinning quietly for millennia, polar vortex gets swept into a media storm.

Polar vortex getting its 15 minutes

We hadn’t heard much from the polar vortex in the last hundred years or so, but all of a sudden it has become the Osama Bin Laden of weather.

Just for the hay of it, we checked the Nexis database for the term “polar vortex” in the “major newspapers” category for the last week and found 162 references.

By contrast, for the winter of 1985, when a visit from the vortex drove cosmic cold into the United States, and the mercury plunged to 7 below in Philadelphia, we found only a solitary article mentioning the vortex.

And that was in the Miami Herald.

So much for obscurity.

“I’ve spent the last 24 hours talking about the polar vortex,” said Bernie Rayno, veteran meteorologist at AccuWeather Inc. “I’ve heard that term used more in the last 24 hours than I did in the last 25 years.”

He added that he did not want to minimize the impressive cold that has swept through the nation shattering records.

The PV is real. It’s a swirling mass in the upper atmosphere when the winter sun disappears and typically has two Arctic centers, one near the Baffin Island and the other over Siberia.

Occasionally, a vortex is nudged far southward and invades the United States with bitter cold that can’t be stopped even by the afternoon sun. This was a particularly vigorous invasion.

What is really different about this one, however, is its level of celebrity. We found way more media references to “polar vortex” in the last week than we did in the 20 years since the last time it was this cold around here.

Rayno said he is not sure which media outlet started the frenzy, but it has been as unstoppable as an Arctic air mass.

“It’s a catchy term,” said Rayno, adding that someone had asked him if it was the name of a rock band.

He said it reminded him of the rapid popularization of the El Nino phenomenon in the 1980s. From pre-Columbian times, El Nino, the anomalous warming of surface waters in the tropical Pacific was the bane of Peruvian anchovy fisherman.

After 1983, it became an international household term.

He said that when he got into the business, he was told not to use technical terms such as “polar vortex” because the public was apt to misunderstand or misinterpret them.

Said Rayno, “A lot of the rules that we used to follow about educating the public, about being not too scientific, I think that’s out the window now.”

Tony Wood Inquirer Weather Columnist
About this blog

Everyone talks about the weather, and here we write about it.

When we’re around and conditions warrant, we’ll keep you updated about what’s coming, but we will do our best always to discuss weather and climate developments in context and remind you that nothing in the atmosphere happens in a vacuum.

Tony Wood has been writing about the atmosphere for The Inquirer for 26 years.

Reach Tony at twood@phillynews.com.

Tony Wood Inquirer Weather Columnist
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