Weather forecasters used to call it “The Polar Express” (years before the Tom Hanks movie came out). Or the “Arctic Express.” Or the “Canadian Clipper.” A Canadian Clipper can also refer to a type of snowstorm. Only now they call it “Lake Effect Snow.” They stopped calling this kind of cold a clipper when there weren’t enough people left alive who knew that a “clipper” was a type of airplane in the Twenties and Thirties. It’s the kind of plane Indiana Jones flies around the world in. We haven’t had a cold snap like this in so long that people forgot about this phenomenon.
Basically, it’s just a current of very cold air that sweeps down from the Arctic regions of northern Alaska and Canada. Generally, the bitter temperatures stay up there in the North Pole. Occasionally, however, the jet stream slips and freezes the oranges in Florida.
The polar vortex, CNN tells us, “is a circulation of strong, upper-level winds that normally surround the northern pole in a counterclockwise direction — a polar low-pressure system. These winds tend to keep the bitter cold air locked in the Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. It is not a single storm. On occasion, this vortex can become distorted and dip much farther south than you would normally find it, allowing cold air to spill southward.
So, how often does this “polar vortex” distortion occur?
The upper-level winds that make up the polar vortex change in intensity from time to time. When those winds decrease significantly, it can allow the vortex to become distorted, and the result is a jet stream that plunges deep into southern latitudes, bringing the cold, dense Arctic air spilling down with it. This oscillation is known as the Arctic Oscillation and it can switch from a positive phase to negative phase a few times per year. This oscillation — namely the negative phase where the polar winds are weaker — tends to lead to major cold air outbreaks in one or more regions of the planet.
The polar vortex can lead to major cold air outbreaks in any portion of the Northern Hemisphere — North America, Europe and Asia. This will lead to cold snaps in multiple locations, though not always.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ve had bitter cold spells before, where the temperature not only dropped to zero, but went below zero in the Metropolitan New York City area. Some schools in New Jersey, though more in Southern Jersey, where they’re truly not used to zero degree temps, closed. They’re just big sissies.
Our friends in Upstate New York and New England live with these kind of temperatures every winter and guess what? Their kids have to get up out of their warm beds and go into considerably below-zero temperatures to go to school. They don’t close the schools up there because of a cold spell.
Most of the schools in Northern New Jersey kept their doors open, except for High Point H.S. High Point, so named because it’s the highest point in the state, in the extreme northwest corner on the borders of Pennsylvania and New York can perhaps be excused. The rest of the kids just had to tough it out.
We’ve been here before. I walked to high school in single-digit temperatures. I preferred to bundle up against frostbite than risk the horrors of the high school bus and the tormentors on board. I made it, feet intact. Sometimes my father would take pity on me and drive me.
Someone on the internet posted a photo of the Mississippi River frozen over in 1905. Mother Nature is a constant. Think of her as a woman in the midst of “The Change,” the years preceding menopause. First she’s hot, then she’s cold. One day she’s in a mild temper, then the next day she’s a howling hurricane of feminine fury.
Calm down, everybody. All this hysteria over a new phrase for an old phenomenon (cold, windy weather below the Arctic Circle) cooked up by the Climate Change Conspiracy Theorists is quite unwonted. If it were June or July, then we’d have reason to worry. But it’s January. It’s winter. Freezing cold happens in the more northerly regions and sometimes dips down into Florida to remind Snowbirds that all the money in the world can’t save them from Mother Nature. “Polar Vortex” is another name for “Cold Snap.”
Meanwhile, if the temperatures hold at these levels for at least five days, you can get out your ice skates and go skating on one of New Jersey’s numerous ponds and lakes. “Polar Vortices” make for great ice-skating conditions. The only people who’ll be on thin ice are the CCCTs. So just relax. Go ice skating. Have a cup of hot chocolate and revel in the wonders of Mother Nature.