Polar Vortex 2014 Brings Rare, Widespread Arctic Freeze To Huge Swath Of US

By Josh Lieberman on January 6, 2014 3:59 PM EST

The polar vortex hovering over the United States on January 6, 2014, at 11:00 AM EST. Photo: NASA
The polar vortex hovering over the United States on January 6, 2014, at 11:00 AM EST. Photo: NASA

If you live in the United States and you've turned on the news in recent days, you've probably heard about something called a "polar vortex." The weather phenomenon is what's behind the cold snap in the Midwest, southern and eastern states, where temperatures are the lowest they've been in two decades. In Duluth, Minn., the windchill temperature has gone as low as 56 degrees below zero; even in Hunstville Ala., the temperature dropped to 14 degrees. In Indianapolis, Ind., mayor Greg Ballard warned of temperatures "lower than what's in your freezer."

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A polar vortex, or Arctic cyclone, is a low-pressure pool of cold air that resides tens of thousands of feet in the atmosphere. It generally hangs out over Baffin Island in Canada and northeast Siberia. But every once in a while, a polar vortex takes a vacation south. Sometimes a polar vortex moves south when warm air builds up north of the vortex, and sometimes--like right now--a portion of a polar vortex breaks off and moves south for reasons that aren't quite clear. According to Frank Giannasca, senior meteorologist with The Weather Channel, "This very well just may be one of those anomalies where it forces itself southward."

It's not rare for a polar vortex to move south, but it is rare for it to cover such a large portion of the U.S.--right now it's affecting some 140 million Americans. A polar vortex visiting the U.S. "doesn't happen every year and doesn't always pushed this far south," said Tom Kines, a senior meteorologist at Accuweather, but it has "happened in the past and will happen in the future." A polar vortex event as widespread as the current one occurs in the U.S. every decade or so.

The National Weather Service forecast for 8:00 AM EST on January 6, 2014. Photo: National Weather Service
The National Weather Service forecast for 8:00 AM EST on January 6, 2014. Photo: National Weather Service

The cold temperatures from a polar vortex can lead to frostbite, even if your skin is exposed just a few minutes. Frostbite can set in at temperatures of 15 to 30 degrees below zero; prolonged exposure can lead to hypothermia and cardiac arrest.

Fortunately this will all be over soon. According to NASA, a polar vortex should return to Canada later this week, leaving Americans to bask in the more normal cold of winter.

Below, watch what happens when you shoot boiling water out of a water gun in negative-45-degree weather, courtesy of a fellow in Northern Ontario. Crazy.

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