Tag Archives: polar vortex

If it’s flooding or frozen, it must be March


We don’t talk about it, not really, at any rate; for to talk about it would hex us forever.

Oh, sure, we chat discursively around the subject. We say things like, “Oh well, what are you going to do?” and “Geez, we weren’t expecting this” and “Maybe, it isn’t as bad as we think.”

No, it’s not the frightening situation in the Ukraine and the threat of reigniting the Cold War with Russia. It’s not the slightly less frightening situation in Ottawa and the threat of John Baird and/or Jason Kenney replacing the off-message (which means sensible and well-meaning) Jim Flaherty as finance minister just in time for Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s next appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

It’s none of these or other legitimate, though contrived, concerns that has us trembling in our mukluks. It is, however, a bug-a-bear that’s distinctly, uniquely Canadian at this time of the year. It’s (gasp!) the weather.

As to this – to quote a phrase in a book I once loved to read when the snow was as high as an elephant’s arse – what in the blue-blazes and billions of blue blistering boiled and barbecued barnacles is going on around here? (Apologies to Captain Archibald Haddock of “Tintin” fame).

There, now: I’m talking about it. Bad luck be-damned. It’s March 6, and it’s time for an earnest intervention with Planet Earth. I’ll start. Dear Gaia, are you kidding me?

I mean, I get that you’re peeved about all the junk we’ve been pouring into the atmosphere. But that’s supposed to warm things up a might. What’s with the walk-in freezer two weeks before the official start of spring?

Still, to a weather junkie, it’s all perfectly explicable.

“The latest public enemy No. 1 comes complete with an ominous, super-villain name and a tendency to waver drunkenly around the Northern Hemisphere, leaking great, vast gasps of frigid Arctic air into normally more temperate latitudes,” writes Larry O’Hanlon in Discovery magazine’s online edition. He is, of course, referring to the polar vortex which, he acknowledges has “always been there, but most of the time it minds its own business and serves as a wall of wind to hold wintry Arctic air where it belongs.”

Not this winter. This winter it has been, quite literally, all over the map. Hence the pronounced and prolonged cold. There’s even some suggestion that the active vortex is linked to – if not a direct result of – global warming.

“It may well be that global warming could be making the occasional bout of extreme cold weather in the U.S. (and Canada) even more likely,” Bryan Walsh writes in Time Magazine’s online edition. “Usually the fast winds in the vortex – which can top 100 mph (161 k/h) – keep that cold air locked up in the Arctic. But when the winds weaken, the vortex can begin to wobble like a drunk on his fourth martini, and the Arctic air can escape and spill southward, bringing Arctic weather with it.”

Essentially, warmer than normal air sinking from the stratosphere upsets the vortex’s flow and sends it madly off in all directions.

Good science is always a palliative for high anxiety, but history also provides a much-needed cold comfort. My trusty Canadian Weather Trivia Calendar 2014 proves that, for we citizens of the Great White North, March truly is, and always has been, the cruelest month.

March 5, 1900: “Snows whipped into monstrous drifts blocked trains near Brantford, ON. Two young passengers volunteered to get food at a nearby town. When they returned the hungry crowd began to devour everything in sight. After the meal, cigars were indulged and in and around 12 o’clock all retired to any spot providing comfort. Two men froze their ears walking 1 kilometer from one express train to another.”

Then, of course, only last year on March 20, the first day of spring, a storm “dumped 19 cm of snow on Moncton, NB, and nearly 40 cm of snow in Fredericton. The storm closed schools, caused power outage, and shut down offices.”

All of which confirms, if nothing else, that if it seems that the weather can’t get any weirder, it only seems that way.

The bottom line: There’s no use in complaining. Indeed, it’s best not to talk at all. With these temperatures, why waste energy?

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Go ahead, blame it on the weather

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Let us just finally admit, with one pitiful sigh, that we are, in fact, responsible for the walk-in freezers we’ve installed in towns and cities across much of the country.

We’ve certainly had better starts: milder temperatures, sunnier skies and drier conditions to mark the new year. We’ve even had lights that stayed on and airports that remained open.

But all that was before the dreaded polar vortex debuted in our lives and on the late-night TV comedy circuit of 2014.

“Good to have you with us folks – and by ‘with us’, I mean still living,” funnyman Stephen Colbert quipped this week. “It was so cold on New Year’s Eve, that the ball went back up.”

Watch out, he warned, for the “polar vortex” and its “thunder snow. . .Frankly, I’m not sure that those are weather terms, or finishing moves from ‘Mortal Kombat’.” When the thaw begins, he cautioned, the forecast calls for “Partly cloudpocalypse with a 20 per cent chance of rain-a-geddon.”

A somewhat more sober analysis appears on CBC’s website:

“The polar vortex refers to winds that whip around the polar ice cap, trapping Earth’s coldest temperatures there. Its deterioration with global warming, however, can send arctic weather south into areas as far away as the southern U.S. and Europe, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists. ‘When the polar vortex. . .breaks down, this allows cold air to spill south, affecting the eastern United States and other regions,’ says NOAA’s Dr. James Overland. ‘This can result in a warmer-than-average arctic region and colder temperatures that may include severe winter weather events on the North American and European continents.’”

It’s that phrase – “its deterioration with global warming” – that will stick in the craw of every climate change denier from Hibernia to Fort McMurray.

Nevertheless, according to a piece this week for Climate Central, “Such weather patterns, which can feature relatively mild conditions in the Arctic at the same time dangerously cold conditions exist in vast parts of the lower 48, may be tied to the rapid warming and loss of sea ice in the Arctic due, in part, to manmade climate change.

“The forecast high temperature in Fairbanks, Alaska, on Monday was in the 20s Fahrenheit – warmer than many locations in Georgia and Alabama. That fits in with the so-called ‘Arctic Paradox’ or ‘Warm Arctic”, Cold Continents’ pattern that researchers first identified several years ago. Such patterns bring comparatively mild conditions to the Arctic while places far to the south are thrown into a deep freeze.”

Of course, scientists have been predicting the intensification of traditional cold snaps in North America for at least a decade. In fact, in 2004, NASA had this to say in an article entitled, “A Chilling Possibility” posted to its website:

“Global warming could plunge North America and Western Europe into a deep freeze, possibly within only a few decades. That’s the paradoxical scenario gaining credibility among many climate scientists. The thawing of sea ice covering the Arctic could disturb or even halt large currents in the Atlantic Ocean. Without the vast heat that these ocean currents deliver – comparable to the power generation of a million nuclear power plants – Europe’s average temperature would likely drop 5 to 10°C (9 to 18°F), and parts of eastern North America would be chilled somewhat less. Such a dip in temperature would be similar to global average temperatures toward the end of the last ice age roughly 20,000 years ago.”

All of which bodes well for the bottom lines of those who manufacture the excellent Snow Goose line of outerwear. As for the rest of us. . .not so much.

Still, perhaps this is just the kick in the pants the Fraser Institute thinks we need as we set about dismantling governments and collecting the wood from their paneled offices for kindling. There’s nothing like an encroaching ice age to clarify the mind, gird the loins, and fortify the soul.

It’s even possible – if only just – that we’ll finally start taking responsibility for the various hardships we like to blame on everything and everyone except the person in the frozen mirror.

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