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Can we talk about the weather? Five key climate terms to know

In World
January 10, 2024

NEW YORK – People the world over talk about the weather. But it is getting harder to follow the lingo as climate change messes with normal patterns, resulting in more frequent extremes of hot and cold, and wet and dry.

Here are some terms to know for a modern discussion about the weather.

1. Polar vortex

The polar vortexes are girdles of swirling cold air and low pressure surrounding the Earth’s poles. “Vortex” refers to the counter-clockwise wind pattern that helps lock the cold air near the poles.

The polar vortexes are always there, but we often hear about the Arctic one as a cause of frigid weather in the US and portions of Europe and Asia. That is because about once every other year, the low-pressure system weakens and a portion of it breaks off.

This interferes with the jet stream’s separation of warm and cold air, and the jet stream gets distorted. Under these conditions, once a high-pressure system gets in the way, the Arctic air pushes south in the shape of a bubble.

In February 2021, the northern polar vortex gave way and released a blast of icy air that reached all the way to Texas, crippling the electric grid and killing at least 210 people.

Some models have predicted that further global warming will lead to a weakening of the polar vortexes and the jet streams that usually hold them in place. 

2. Jet streams 

Jet streams are fast-flowing rivers of air that circle the Earth. There are four major jet streams – one each near the North and South poles, and two closer to the equator.

All travel west to east and act as buffers between different air masses, helping to steer weather systems and keep colder air north and warmer air south.

When jet streams get distorted, unusual weather patterns can emerge. For example, when jet streams are slower and weaker, they’re more susceptible to getting split.

These “double jet streams” can lock areas of high pressure in place, prolonging extreme hot or cold spells.

A 2022 study in the journal Nature Communications found that these events are lasting longer than they once did, in part because of rapid warming of Arctic land areas.

In the span of more than 40 years, double jet events explained almost all of the increasing heat waves in Western Europe and about 30 per cent of them across the continent, the study said. 

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