The recent polar vortex that swept through the Midwest trapped many inside as temperatures dropped dangerously low, resulting in the University canceling classes for just the third time in the past 40 years due to weather. Indeed, everyone bundled up and watched as the whole state seemed to shut down for a few days — stores closed early or altogether, schools canceled classes and only the bravest among us dared spend more than a few minutes outside at a time.
Now that we are safely on the other side of the winter storm, as we thaw ourselves and our frozen pipes, it is important to take a closer look at exactly what the polar vortex is, and what it means for us in the Midwest in the future. Unfortunately, as is customary by this point, some politicians took to Twitter and attempted to use the cold weather to attack the science of climate change among other environmental ideas. Apart from being wildly scientifically inaccurate, this kind of rhetoric is careless and dangerous to public interests.
Before delving into the different examples, we ought to establish the baseline in definitions. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “(W)eather refers to short-term changes in the atmosphere, climate describes what the weather is like over a long period of time in a specific area.” To put it simply, weather refers to the everyday fluctuations of the atmosphere — temperature, precipitation, humidity, etc. — and climate is the general average in an area over a long period of time. A great analogy is that weather is your mood, whereas climate is your personality.
Climate change is the scientific phenomenon of rising global temperatures on average over time due primarily to the addition of greenhouse gases to our atmosphere. While the data surrounding climate change is rather undeniable, it remains a political issue. Regardless of political views, however, climate change is happening and is already affecting the United States.
This doesn’t stop some politicians from taking every opportunity available to express disbelief. President Donald Trump tweeted out his thoughts about the polar vortex, suggesting it was connected to global warming. “In the beautiful Midwest, windchill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees, the coldest ever recorded,” President Trump wrote. “People can’t last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global [sic] Waming? Please come back fast, we need you!”
This is not the first time the president used cold temperatures to try and sow doubt about climate change, nor is he the only politician to use this tactic. Famously in 2015, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., brought a snowball onto the Senate floor in an attempt to prove global warming is a hoax.
In an even more bizarre move, political pundit Jim Hoft tried using the cold temperatures against renewable energy, tweeting, “It’s a bit cold outside this morning in middle America… Aren’t you glad you aren’t heating your home with a solar panel like nitwit Socialist @AOC is demanding?” What I believe was supposed to be an attack on U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal backfired on Hoft as many were quick to point out that the sun does indeed still shine when it is cold (in fact, solar panels can be more efficient in colder temperatures).
It is clear that there is a severe misunderstanding of the climate science surrounding the polar vortex. Despite the dramatic name, the polar vortex isn’t anything out of the ordinary or all that unique. Moreover, our conversations surrounding it ought to reflect our scientific understanding.
As Simon Clark, an Oxford alum who has a doctorate in theoretical atmosphere and physics, points out in a recent YouTube video, the vortex is something that always exists and is constantly moving. “The polar vortex is a big, zonal circulation in the stratosphere that forms every year,” Clark says. “Usually, the circulation stays in a tight circulation around the poles, but every seven years or so the vortex weakens, causing it to dip further south, resulting in the arctic temperatures felt in the Midwest last week.”
Interestingly, climate scientists are studying the cycle of the vortex to see if there are any long-run effects of global warming on the phenomenon. As global temperatures rise, extreme weather events are predicted to increase in frequency and volatility. While there is evidence to show changes in atmospheric jet streams due to rapid Arctic warming, there is inconclusive data thus far to prove a concrete connection between climate change and increased frequency of the polar vortex cycle.
While there is no conclusive evidence yet showing if or how the polar vortex cycle will be affected by climate change, it should absolutely not be used by politicians to try and contradict it. If anything, future observations and scientific study could prove the two to be linked — and that is something Midwesterners should pay close attention to. Reports show that during the three coldest days, the vortex cost the U.S. economy up to $5 billion due to closed businesses, schools and transportation. Additionally, effects of the dangerous temperatures claimed the lives of at least eight people, including a University of Iowa student. If there is a possibility that this is to happen more frequently as some researchers suggest, it could be very bad news for the Midwest.
It would be inaccurate to claim the polar vortex this year is directly a result of a changing climate. However, it does highlight that the Earth has an extremely complex climatic system and we ought to study it as closely as possible. Reducing it as something totally unique is a careless misrepresentation that could cost us in the future. By paying attention to climate scientists and the data, we can better prepare ourselves should this become a more commonplace occurrence and adapt accordingly if needed.
Timothy Spurlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.