Polar vortex's possible boost from global warming

By Jeff Berardelli

/ CBS News

Life-threatening low temperatures to hit U.S.

Forecasters say many people in the nation's midsection will see record-shattering wind chills from 40 to 65 degrees below zero this week — cold so extreme it could cause frostbite on exposed skin in five minutes or less. Some 100 million people will experience temperatures near or below zero.

The frigid air will come from a brief visit by the polar vortex, a real meteorological phenomenon, not just a sensational headline. It's a whirling mass of cold winds in the mid- to upper-levels of the atmosphere, present every winter.

It usually stays closer to the poles but sometimes breaks apart, sending chunks of Arctic air southward into the U.S. during winter, as explained on Twitter by Climate Central's Sean Sublette:

Every once in a great while, a chunk of that vortex goes way south. That's what will happen for a couple of days this week. #polarvortex pic.twitter.com/AN8gpMbhI8

— Sean Sublette (@SeanSublette) January 28, 2019

This week's particularly cold outbreak may be explained by the relative lack of cold air so far this winter in the eastern U.S. Instead of the cold air bleeding south a little at a time, it's coming all at once.

But something else may be in play. A counterintuitive theory about the vortex is gaining ground among some in the climate science community: Regional cold air outbreaks may be getting an "assist" from global warming. While it may not make sense, scientifically, it's consistent with the extremes expected from climate change.

Overall, Earth is warming due to climate change, but areas near the North Pole are warming more than 2 times faster than the rest of the globe. This "Arctic Amplification" is especially pronounced in winter.

When warm air invades the Arctic Circle, it weakens the polar vortex, displacing cold air masses southward into Europe, Asia and the United States. You might think of it as a once tight-knit circulation unraveling, slinging pieces of cold air outward.

Evidence for this was presented in a research paper published in the Journal of the American Meteorological Society. Essentially, it suggests climate change can contribute to a more extreme, wavy jet stream, hurling cold air masses farther south.

If there's any saving grace to this current bitter blast, it's that the mass of cold air won't penetrate very far south, with the core staying over the northern third of the nation. Temperatures in central and South Florida will stay above 40 degrees.

The cold blast also won't last very long. By Sunday, temperatures will back in the 50s in parts of the Ohio Valley, feeling like 100 degrees warmer.

Try thinking warm thoughts… After the polar vortex passes, by Sunday, temperatures will be 75 degrees warmer in parts of the Ohio Valley and Midwest, feeling like 100 warmer!! pic.twitter.com/vmtsWNytav

— Jeff Berardelli (@WeatherProf) January 29, 2019

First published on January 29, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Jeff Berardelli

Meteorologist Jeff Berardelli is a CBS News Climate & Weather Contributor. Follow him on Twitter @WeatherProf.

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