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Polar vortex: What it is and what to do in the sub zero temperatures

Polar vortex: What it is and what to do in the sub zero temperatures
Polar vortex: What it is and what to do in the sub zero temperatures
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The word ‘polar vortex’ has been in the mainstream media for the past few days, which describes the sub-zero temperature environments much of the US is living through until Wednesday, according to a Jan.6 report in the LA Times. The questions many people stuck in the snow filled or icy conditions are asking are, ‘What is a polar vortex and why does it matter to me?’.

The polar vortex is a mass of very cold air that hangs around the north and south poles of the Earth. This giant area of frigid air is normally kept in check around the poles by the jet streams, but due to unusual circumstances, it has drifted over the United States. While the US is pummeled by snow, sleet and freezing temperatures, the North pole is slightly warmer than it normally is at this time of year.

The jetstream just shifts enough … [the front] just moves in over the upper Midwest, and it just sits in place, and it allows the cold air to spread over the entire upper Midwest," according to Todd Heitkamp of the National Weather Service in South Dakota.

The polar vortex phenomenon is not a new occurrence. This exact circumstance happened in the 1990s, according to Todd Heitkamp. Additionally, Heitkamp does not like the term ‘polar vortex’, believing it makes the process seem more dire than it really is.

It’s not really a phrase I like -- it makes it sound a lot worse than what it actually is … This has happened before,” Heitkamp stated.

The polar vortex can be dangerous, especially if people are not prepared for the intense cold wind, bringing wind chills of an excess of negative 20 and lower in some areas. In environments of sub zero temperatures, exposed skin can develop frostbite and some cars may not run properly. It is recommended to avoid going outside during the next couple days if at all possible.