Why I won't say 'Polar Vortex' in public

(WXYZ) - With metro Detroit under another dome of frigid air from the arctic region, some people are tossing out the "polar vortex" label again.

While there's no doubt it's unusually cold even for January around here, images of a frozen, spinning storm aren't helpful and you won't hear me using the term.

The term "polar vortex" is not a media creation.  It is, however, meteorological jargon, and doesn't really help explain to the average person why it's so cold. From the Glossary  of Meteorology, a polar vortex is: "The planetary-scale cyclonic circulation, centered generally in the polar regions, extending from the middle troposphere to the stratosphere.

The vortex is strongest in winter when the pole-to-equator temperature gradient is strongest."  It often has two centers, one near Baffin island and the other over northeast Siberia.

When the record-breaking cold came pouring in from the arctic early this month, an Associated Press writer apparently spoke with a meteorologist who used the term and presumably, the writer liked the way it sounded, included "polar vortex" in the headline about the cold air, and it basically went viral.

But the term "polar vortex," in my opinion, belongs in the non-smoking back rooms where we discuss and hash out forecasts before we put them out to the public.  I don't go on the air or online talking about Hadley cells, or isentropic lift or dendritic growth zones, even though I may use those terms speaking to other meteorological nerds. 

Many professions have their jargon, and just because new media makes it easier for us to find out about them, that doesn't necessarily mean they should instantly become part of the vernacular.  There are lots of reasons why you wouldn't want to hear your doctor talk about your argonal condition or call a Code Blue in your honor.  It's best they keep their jargon to themselves also.

Explaining that the steering jet stream winds drove a large chunk of very cold air from the arctic into parts of North America that don't usually get it takes more time than just labeling it "polar vortex." I get that.  But it's a meteorologist's job to tell you what to expect and as time allows, give you a little background as to why.  It's not his or her job to make you Google the glossary of meteorology, or frighten you with scary images. 

Over the next few days, grabbing lots of layers along with your warmest hat and gloves will be a much better use of your precious time.

Print this article Back to Top

Comments