The Other Polar Vortex

Unseasonably cold weather was forecast across the country’s Midwest and Northeast this past summer, parts of which were expected to, and did, see temperatures dip into the 40s and 50s – a rare occurrence for the month of July in these parts.

Naturally, this had media commentators speculating about the much-vaunted “polar vortex” which was forced to take the blame. While it’s a catchy term that gets a lot of attention, the polar vortex was unfairly crucified by the media and meteorologists alike for the unseasonable polar blast mid-westerners experienced.

Weather.com offers a detailed explanation of how this happened. In fact, there are two polar vortices, one each over the North and South Poles. But the roots of both are in the upper atmosphere – known as the stratosphere some 25,000 to 45,000 feet above the Earth. The polar vortex is a feature of this upper atmosphere, not a prominent feature in our air space known as the troposphere and where we experience our weather. Sometimes pieces of the larger, higher polar vortex spin, break off, and sweep toward southern Canada, helping drive cold Arctic plunges into the U.S. – just like it did in July.

I could go on, but the point I want to stress is this: the big problem here is that the media got it wrong, like it does so many things. It frequently fails to check the accuracy of the words it uses. Accuracy used to matter so much more than it does today. People wanted to “get it right” no matter how small the story. Unfortunately, linguistic errors are now prevalent in the big stories as well as the smaller ones.

The general media, local newscasts in particular, lays the blame for this outbreak of anomalously cold air on the polar vortex – and this just isn’t so, as that air mass in which we experience our weather is a lot lower than that where the polar vortex is located. Dr. Stu Ostro, senior meteorologist for The Weather Channel, notes that the polar vortex is like the spoke of a wheel. The air mass we experienced was a strong one for this far south in the middle of summer. “But it’s just a spoke, and there will be other troughs…as there are constantly…around the world…the thing over the Great Lakes is not the whole wheel, and is just a little component of the tropospheric circumpolar vortex, and is not the stratospheric polar vortex.” Go to http://www.weather.com for a detailed explanation of how it works – remember: knowledge is power. And if you’re looking for accuracy in forecast explanations using precise nomenclature, your local news stations are not the place to get it – but that’s, in part, a topic for another blog.

Are climate change and weather patterns of major concern when you have to put on a coat or a sweater so you don’t freeze to death while trying to have a pleasant meal in a climate-controlled restaurant environment? When you step through those doors, they are – because too often, the indoor climate of many businesses and restaurants is as unbearable as that outside their doors. This is known as “the other polar vortex.”

It is, perhaps, a minor climatological problem in the scheme of things, but for some of us, an important one. Should not our comfort matter as much as that of other customers? We are paying for the privilege of being served, too.

Most places create their own polar vortex and are way too cold for comfort – it’s like stepping into the equivalent of a meat locker. Many times I feel like asking if they rent coats, so even in summer I now carry a sweater or jacket with me everywhere I go, just in case. And I would say that 19 out of 20 times I need to put one on.

Weather forecasting is better than it used to be. It’s not as if meteorologists have to lick their fingers and stick them into the blowing wind to see what the day will bring, but the science has a long way to go yet, too. The problem is that the general public is generally not too discerning about whom they choose to believe – and this applies across the board, not just to the weather forecast. Newscasters, local and national alike, have slipped into using sloppy, careless word choices, often using the wrong ones because that’s what everyone else is doing these days.

Arm yourself with information from credible sources before you go believing and reporting everything you hear. It’s the only way to combat ignorance and sloth.

And put on a sweater while you’re at it or you’ll freeze to death the next time you eat out. Even though the climate in the Midwest has four distinct seasons, that blast of cold winter air runs through all of them.

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