What’s the polar vortex? You may hear that term on social media in the winter. It’s nothing new to a meteorologist. It’s an old term that describes a river of fast moving air about 10 to 12 miles above the ground that encircles the arctic. In the winter, the 24 hours of darkness allows cold air to pool and grow. It generally remains trapped at high latitudes by the vortex of air known as the polar vortex.
Much like the jetstream, the polar vortex meanders and buckles from day to day and week to week. When it dips south, colder air flows southward. That creates what has always been called an arctic outbreak or polar outbreak. The frigid air travels southward through Canada to arrive in the central and eastern United States. While it may be windy when the air arrives, that’s not the actual polar vortex!