Remember when the term “polar vortex” went viral?
It was January of 2014, and parts of the U.S. were colder than Mars. In Minnesota, temperatures reached negative 35 degrees, and in Texas it was 21. Overall, more than a third of the country experienced below-zero temperatures, and every single state dipped below-freezing—even Hawaii. At least 21 people died from the cold.
Climate deniers thought this was all pretty funny. “Al Gore told me this wouldn’t happen,” Senator Ted Cruz chuckled. A genius, that guy. On Drudge, the banner headline screamed: “‘GLOBAL WARMING’ INTENSIFIES.”
Donald Trump, then just a reality show host with a Twitter account, did not mince words: “This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop.” (This was the day he truly became president.)
I watched all this unfold from a small desk in the ThinkProgress newsroom. I was 24 years old, and had been a climate reporter for two months. I wanted very badly to do well at my job, but I didn’t actually understand the relationship between cold weather and climate change. So I decided to use the news peg to find out.
Alcohol helps me understand science
My preliminary reporting took me to National Geographic’s Scienceblog, where bioanthroplogist Greg Laden had written a post called “Go Home Arctic, You’re Drunk.” It was the first piece to explain the polar vortex in a way my post-college infant brain could easily understand.
Laden explained that the “polar vortex” did not describe a one-time weather event, but a constant mass of cold air circulating around the Arctic. That air, he wrote, had simply taken a long and somewhat confusing (i.e., drunk) jaunt down south, leaving the Arctic itself relatively warm.
“We are not seeing an expansion of cold, an ice age, or an anti-global warming phenomenon,” Laden wrote. “We are seeing the usual cold polar air taking an excursion. So, this cold weather we are having does not disprove global warming.”
Then Laden added a sentence I did not expect to read: “In fact, the cold snap we are experiencing in the middle of the U.S. and adjoining Canada may be because of global warming.”
Laden cited research by Jennifer Francis at Rutgers University’s Institute of Marine and Coastal Science to prove his point. I had not heard anyone say anything like that before. So I called her next.
“The drunk part is the jet stream”
After confirming Laden’s meteorological explanation of the polar vortex, I started reading Francis’s research, which focuses on how Arctic warming might be affecting weather in the rest of the northern hemisphere. (The Arctic is warming much, much faster than the rest of the planet).
Francis’s peer-reviewed papers showed a fascinating phenomenon: That as the Arctic was getting warmer and warmer, the polar vortex was taking more and more drunken adventures down south.
In a phone conversation, Francis told me the drunk part was actually the jet stream: the currents of wind that flow west to east along the borders of hot and cold air*. “The jet stream is in this wavy pattern, like a drunk walking along,” she said. She said human-caused climate change was weakening the jet stream, causing these massive dips.
“This kind of pattern is going to be more likely, and has been more likely,” she said. “Extremes on both ends are a symptom. Wild, unusual temperatures of both sides, both warmer and colder.”
I called another climate scientist, Kevin Trenberth at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, to weigh in. He expressed caution at the theory, noting it had only shown correlation and not causation. But he also added: “All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.”
This was enough for me. I wrote up an article about the actual climate connection to the polar vortex, a social media editor gave it a headline I absolutely hated, and it became my first-ever viral climate change story.
(If you want a cringe-worthy laugh this morning, you can listen to 24-year-old baby Emily nervously trying to explain the wavy jet stream on California’s KPFK Pacifica Radio a little over seven years ago.)
Seven years later: An even drunker, deadlier jet stream (featuring a Snownado in Texas)
I’m telling you this story because the polar vortex—or, rather, the jet stream—is drunk again, bringing frigid and dangerous Arctic weather to millions of Americans. And the situation is worse than it was in 2014.
It is worse in the strictly meteorologically sense. The extreme cold pummeling the U.S. right now is, according to Accuweather, “the most active winter weather pattern across the country likely since the mid-1990s.”
Winter storms could arrive every two to three days amid the tumultuous pattern, which is due in part to a major buckling of the jet stream. The river of high winds aloft plunged southward over the central United States then swung up along the Atlantic coast in recent days, setting the path for storms to ride along. That active storm track will be fueled by the collision of Arctic air sprawling across the middle of the nation and milder air holding its ground in the Southeast.
More importantly, however, this polar vortex event is worse in the human sense—because it’s more intensely affecting an area of the country that is unaccustomed to weather like this. It’s not 21 degrees in Texas this time; it’s negative one degree. More than 2 million homes are without power, and at least 20 people across the country have already died.
Oh, and there’s a fucking snownado.
The science connecting events like this to climate change has come a long way in the last seven years. Francis is no longer yelling into a void. Her research is everywhere: The Times, The Post, Popular Science, National Geographic. And she is no longer yelling alone. “Severe winter weather is much more frequent when the Arctic is warmest,” Judah Cohen, the director of seasonal forecasting at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, told the Times yesterday. “It’s not in spite of climate change, but related to climate change.”
I’ve come a long way as a reporter, too. And I can tell you confidently, though there is still uncertainty in the causal link between climate change and the drunk jet stream, we have more than enough information to know what’s happening here. This extreme polar vortex event epitomizes everything climate change is: unprecedented, unrelenting, affecting a population unaccustomed and unprepared. Yes, we have always had winter—but not here, and not like this. Now take out the word “winter,” and replace it with every other extreme weather event. That’s climate change.
Here’s who hasn’t come a long way: Ted Cruz, Matt Drudge, and Donald Trump. Seven years later, all three still deny this dangerous, costly reality—though only one still actively tweets.
It’s not just those three men, of course. They merely represent the most obnoxious and obvious spokespeople for the Republican Party’s favorite big lie. It’s a lie that both citizens and journalists would do well to remember as members of the GOP express condolences for those affected by this week’s winter. The jet stream is drunk because they bought the booze.
*Update: A previous version of this article incorrectly said jet streams flows east to west. They flow westerly, generally.
Catch of the Day:
Fish is drunk blogging again.
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Stay hydrated, eat plants (I like bananas), do push-ups, and have a great weekend!
I heard another good explanation, apart from the Jet Stream acting drunk. Rev. Leo Woodberry (climate activist in SC) told a group of folks here in Charlotte that the growing carbon in the atmosphere acts like a blanket on the Earth. And the Earth's blanket is getting too warm, so the surface is heating up. And what do you do when you are under the covers in bed and you get too warm? You kick around the covers, and toss and turn. That is what Earth is doing. It is tossing and turning, and kicking its covers, because it is too warm. And that produces weird tornados and cold snaps and weather in places where it never used to be like that. He put it in terms that people could understand and that made sense to them.
Spot on piece, Emily, as usual.