What is “Polar vortex” ?

Polar vortex

Polar vortex
Polar vortex
Polar vortex

A polar vortex is a persistent, large-scale cyclone located near one or both of a planet’s geographical poles. On Earth, the polar vortices are located in the middle and upper troposphere and the stratosphere. They surround the polar highs and lie in the wake of the polar front. These cold-core low-pressure areas strengthen in the winter and weaken in the summer. They usually span 1,000–2,000 kilometers (620–1,240 miles) in which the air is circulating in a counter-clockwise fashion (in the northern hemisphere). The reason for the rotation is the same as any other cyclone, the Coriolis effect.

The Arctic vortex has two centres, one near Baffin Island and the other over northeast Siberia. In the southern hemisphere, it tends to be located near the edge of the Ross ice shelf near 160 west longitude. When the polar vortex is strong, the Westerlies increase in strength. When the polar cyclone is weak, the general flow pattern across mid-latitudes buckles and significant cold outbreaks occur. Ozone depletion occurs within the polar vortex, particularly over the Southern Hemisphere, which reaches a maximum in the spring.

Polar cyclones are climatological features which hover near the poles year-round. They are weaker during summer and strongest during winter. When the polar vortex is strong, the Westerlies increase in strength. When the polar cyclone is weak, the general flow pattern across mid-latitudes buckles and significant cold outbreaks occur. Extratropical cyclones which occlude and migrate into higher latitudes create cold-core lows within the polar vortex. Volcanic eruptions in the tropics lead to a stronger polar vortex during the winter for as long as two years afterwards. The strength and position of the cyclone shapes the flow pattern across the hemisphere of its influence. An index which is used in the northern hemisphere to gage its magnitude is the Arctic oscillation.

The Antarctic polar vortex is more pronounced and persistent than the Arctic one; this is because the distribution of land masses at high latitudes in the northern hemisphere gives rise to Rossby waves which contribute to the breakdown of the vortex, whereas in the southern hemisphere the vortex remains less disturbed. The breakdown of the polar vortex is an extreme event known as a sudden stratospheric warming, here the vortex completely breaks down and an associated warming of 30-50 degrees Celsius over a few days can occur. The Arctic vortex is elongated in shape, with two centres, one normally located over Baffin Island in Canada and the other over northeast Siberia. In rare events, when the general flow pattern is amplified, the vortex can push further south as a result of axis interruption, such as during the Winter 1985 Arctic outbreak.

The chemistry of the Antarctic polar vortex has created severe ozone depletion. The nitric acid in polar stratospheric clouds reacts with CFCs to form chlorine, which catalyzes the photochemical destruction of ozone. Chlorine concentrations build up during the polar winter, and the consequent ozone destruction is greatest when the sunlight returns in spring. These clouds can only form at temperatures below about -80xC. Since there is greater air exchange between the Arctic and the mid-latitudes, ozone depletion at the north pole is much less severe than at the south. Accordingly, the seasonal reduction of ozone levels over the Arctic is usually characterized as an “ozone dent,” whereas the more severe ozone depletion over the Antarctic is considered an “ozone hole.” This said, chemical ozone destruction in the 2011 Arctic polar vortex attained, for the 1st time, a level clearly identifiable as an Arctic “ozone hole”.

The 2004 movie The Day After Tomorrow depicted three extremely strong polar vortices developing over and devastating the northern half of the globe.

Other astronomical bodies are also known to have polar vortices, including Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Saturn’s moon Titan.

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