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Words to Watch: Polar Vortex

Last week, temperatures in the northeastern and midwestern United States dropped to record lows. Wind chills were in the negatives (reaching as low as negative 60 degrees Fahrenheit in some places), schools and businesses were closed, flights were grounded. All this and more catastrophe was caused by one weather event – our first word to watch – the Polar Vortex.

‘Polar Vortex’ is an official meteorological term, describing (what I will grossly simplify) the low-pressure area of cold air that usually resides just over the north and south poles, but sometimes breaks off and causes record low temperatures in other parts of the world, like Chicago. They happen “fairly regularly” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but every time the term shows up in the news it sounds like an episode out of the Twilight Zone (or how I’ve been visualizing it here in New York, a scene from The Day After Tomorrow).

“Arctic, Antarctic vets offer warm advice for surviving the Polar Vortex”
“Polar Vortex Flashback? Chicago Braces For Sharp Arctic Slap In The Face”
“’I have never seen such a thing’: Stories across the US from the coldest weather in a generation”
“Wind-chill warning issued ahead of possible 30-below-zero readings”
“’Cold-Mageddon’ Slams US with Coldest Air in Generations, Turning Chicago Into Antarctica”
“‘Polar Vortex’ Cold Snap Can Give People Frostbite in 5 Minutes: Reports”

But what does this term really mean? By definition, it’s pretty simple – it’s a weather phenomenon that shows up in the winter and causes anywhere from a minor to a major disturbance to our lives for a few days. Beyond that though, the way it’s being talked about in the news is part of a larger trend.

For example, Google searches for ‘polar vortex’ coincide with a spike in searches for both ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’.
A screenshot of a social media postDescription generated with very high confidence
That makes sense. Interestingly though, searches for ‘global warming’ surpass those for ‘climate change’ during the timeframe of the polar vortex – contrary both to the trend for the rest of the period and also to what you might expect. Why would ‘warming’ be associated with a period of arctic temperatures? My take is that the subtle differences between how we perceive and understand the two terms plays into their association with catastrophic weather events.

‘Climate’ is nebulous and suggests something above our daily experience. And ‘change’ can be subtle. It happens over time, and it can be both without perpetrator or victim. But ‘global warming’ is much more concrete. It makes us think of actual weather events happening in actual places. So when we read or flick on the TV and see real people being impacted, or experience it ourselves, we think of tangible and noticeable changes like what ‘global warming’ implies.

About a week later, the coverage of the 
Polar Vortex has mostly blown over, but what it signifies for many is far from out of sight or out of mind. 

Want to know what other words we’re watching at maslansky + partners? Check back next week for our latest installment!