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‘Polar vortex:’ Expanding my weather vocabulary

By Ryan M. Taylor

For the Capital Press

Columnist Ryan Taylor offers his version of the state of agriculture.

TOWNER, N.D. — I thought an Alberta Clipper was the worst thing old man winter could throw at us, but then he introduced me to the “polar vortex.” Just like the television weather reporters, I love saying “polar vortex.” I’d say it was a cool pair of words, but we now know they’re more than cool, they’re downright cold.

If I had some real musical ability, I’d start a band and we’d call it the Polar Vortex. I’m not sure what kind of music we’d play, but I know it would be indoors and we’d make sure the last one in shut the dang door. If we were just a garage band, I’d make sure it was a heated garage.


An Alberta Clipper


I hate to jump allegiances, but before polar vortex came into my vocabulary, I was pretty fond of the term Alberta Clipper. It made for a good visual of a stately clipper shipper flying her Canadian colors, her sails full of frigid air as she swooped in over our unprotected border and dumped cold air and high winds on us Americans, unable to do anything but go inside and shut the door.

One of my northern neighbors once told me through the slit in his ski mask and the tunnel-tied hood of his fur-lined parka, “Up here, we call that a Manitoba Chinook.” I like that term, too. A perfect example of wry Canadian humor.

In all three cases, it makes for a lot of news and misery wherever these weather systems travel and land, although it may be a little less news in North Dakota when the polar vortex dropped the temperature to 35 below zero Fahrenheit than, say, Atlanta when the temperature hit 8 degrees above zero.

It’s serious business in those places, no doubt, when they’re not used to it. But setting up cold weather shelters in Florida when the temperatures dip below freezing amuses us northerners a little. When we hit 30 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, we’re out soaking it up in our shirt sleeves as we tuck our earlappers back inside our caps.

Even in North Dakota, when we tire of the cold temperatures, it’s good to remind ourselves that there’s an entire nation north of us. Stay strong, Canada, as you’re humored by your neighbor’s winter struggles to the south.


A ‘circumpolar whirl’


We’d probably all appreciate it if Mother Nature would keep her vortices — that’s the plural of vortex, I just looked it up — where they’re supposed to be. The polar vortex is also called the polar cyclone or, get this, an even catchier term than polar vortex, a “circumpolar whirl.” The whirl is supposed to be twirling around above the pole, not getting all lopsided and sliding down to Georgia.

So, when the vortex is strong, it spins nice and tight and stays up on the pole. When it weakens, it gets all loosey goosey, gets away from the pole and we get cold in New York and Tennessee and a little extra cold on the Taylor Ranch.

Scientists say the diminishing ice in the Arctic is having an effect on the vortex and knocking things out of whack. When I was in Norway, people know there’s less ice and a warming Arctic because shipping channels are opening up in places that used to be pure ice. If you don’t believe them, there’s some light reading in the Journal of Geophysical Research called “A link between reduced Barents-Kara sea ice and cold winter extremes over northern continents.” Not nearly as catchy a set of words as “polar vortex” or “circumpolar whirl,” but, hey, that’s science.

At any rate, I’d rather see more ice in the Arctic, less ice in my cow’s stock tank, and more cold air swirling above the Arctic and less of it swirling around me while I’m doing chores.



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