Submitted photo. (Black Press Media)

Winter was frigid because the polar vortex got ‘drunk’

A visiting scientist at the University of Guelph breaks down the cause of polar vortexes

The mere mention of the term “polar vortex” elicits thoughts of bitterly cold temperatures and dangerous wind chills.

Most people are aware that the frigid air in the Northern Hemisphere is coming directly from the Arctic region, yet they don’t know why polar vortexes happen.

Not surprisingly, this has led to some rather heated debate. One side of the argument claims the polar vortex is a result of climate change and human activity. The other side suggests this is a natural phenomenon that proves global warming is false and that humans are not involved in altering our climate.

The truth is the former is correct. But trying to convince someone to accept this reality might be a difficult challenge.

Thankfully, when it comes to the cause of the polar vortex, there is a relatively easy — and for some, relatable — explanation. Quite simply, the polar vortex gets drunk.

READ MORE: Weather extremes a new fact of life for Canadians, experts say

My research expertise is in microbiology, immunology and chemical mechanisms of molecular interaction (think antibiotics).

As a science communicator, one of my greatest hurdles is defining the intricacies of research into language with which people can understand. This means going deep into the literature and finding the mechanism behind the result. It also means having a deep level of knowledge in a variety of different science branches.

In some cases, the information can be difficult to convey to a wider audience. But when it comes to the polar vortex, it’s not difficult at all.

A close examination of the chemistry associated with the onset of these cold snaps reveals a near-perfect resemblance to a chemical shift our bodies encounter during alcohol consumption. The results reveal that both humans and the planet are similarly susceptible to unexpected and unwanted movements.

Unstable masses

Most of us can recognize when someone has had too much to drink. Their speech is slurred and they have troubles with their balance. This latter symptom is why the walk-and-turn sobriety test is effective — an inebriated person has trouble moving in a straight line.

Maintaining posture and balance is a complicated neurological process. Research has revealed that one molecule, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), is necessary for us to achieve this goal. Our brains use this neurotransmitter to help control the signals to our muscles, particularly when we feel the effects of gravity or being pushed by another person.

When we drink alcohol, GABA helps us preserve our balance and posture. But once we end up losing the necessary levels of GABA needed to keep us upright, we sway, stagger and stumble. Only when we’ve sobered up and increased our GABA levels are we able to regain our balance.

A similar process occurs in the Arctic.

Cold sober

The polar vortex, officially known as the stratospheric polar vortex (SPV), is a stable air mass that tends to stay put when it’s cold sober. In the same way we feel an internal heat during alcohol consumption, the region can warm up with an infiltration of air from the south, better known as a sudden stratospheric warming. When this happens, the steadiness of the vortex is challenged.

Much like our brains have GABA to maintain stability, the SPV also has a chemical that helps to maintain stability. It’s ozone.

When levels remain high, the vortex stays in place. But should the levels drop, then the vortex starts to sway, stagger and then stumble southward, a process known as outward eddy transport. Depending on how low the ozone levels drop, the vortex can stretch well into the southern United States and Europe. Eventually, the SPV sobers up, the ozone levels recover, and the air mass stays up north. But this recovery can be slow and leave those affected freezing for weeks instead of days.

READ MORE: Parts of Midwest colder than Antarctica during deep freeze

As to what causes the ozone loss, it’s a reaction with a variety of chemicals in the air. Researchers can observe the process in real time and have found that the offenders are not alcoholic in nature but happen to be compounds that contain nitrogen and chlorine. The Earth produces these chemicals in the form of volcanic output and forest fire emissions, and this can lead to a drunk polar region.

But the frequency of these events has increased from one every few years to one very few months. There must be another perpetrator.

Thanks to real-time examinations of polar vortex movements over the last 20 years, we can easily finger the culprit: industrial air pollution. These commercial activities produce more than enough of the nitrogen and chlorine chemicals to reduce ozone levels and cause those drunken staggers. The data clearly shows that the blame for the rise in those cold blasts falls squarely on us.

As this winter’s supply of polar vortex events comes to an end, so should the debate over whether the polar vortex is real — it is — and whether these movements are due to human activity — they are. Until we find ways to reduce our dependence on ozone-removing chemicals, all we can do is hope for the best and brace for the worst.

___

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Disclosure information is available on the original site. Read the original article:

https://theconversation.com/winter-was-frigid-because-the-polar-vortex-got-drunk-112517

Jason Tetro, Visiting Scientist, University of Guelph

The Canadian Press

Just Posted

Fernie women step in to save autism program

Branch Out Learning and Behaviour Therapy to replace EK Behaviour Intervention Program in June

Reader survey offers Free Press readers $5000 cash prize

The Free Press is offering readers the chance to win $5000 cash… Continue reading

SD5 drafts business case for Fernie school expansion

Ecole Isabella Dicken Elementary School is currently 30 per cent over capacity

District of Elkford celebrates grand opening of new municipal office

Submitted District of Elkford The District of Elkford has officially begun serving… Continue reading

GALLERY: Fernie hosts mine rescue competition

Fording River, Line Creek mine rescue teams off to provincials after placing first and second

Killer of Calgary mother, daughter gets no parole for 50 years

A jury found Edward Downey guilty last year in the deaths of Sara Baillie, 34, and five-year-old Taliyah Marsman

Fernie barbecue chef challenge this weekend

May 26 cook off to showcase local talent and produce, while raising funds for Fernie Rotoary

Community spirit saves Sparwood’s Coal Miner Days

Volunteers still needed to help run event, which will be held from June 3-9 at various locations

Most British Columbians agree the ‘big one’ is coming, but only 50% are prepared

Only 46 per cent of British Columbians have prepared an emergency kit with supplies they might need

B.C. man to pay Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party $20k over lawsuit

Federal judge shut down Satinder Dhillon’s ‘nonsensical’ motion to bar use of PPC name in byelection

Sitting and sleeping on downtown sidewalks could net $100 fine in Penticton

The measure, which still requires final approval, would be enforced between May and Sept. 30

Survey finds 15% of Canadian cannabis users with a valid licence drive within two hours of using

Survey also finds middle-aged men are upping their usage following legalization

Most Read