Climatically Speaking: Winter 2019, the Polar Vortex and Climate Change

Icebergs, Photo by Ghost Presenter from  Pexels

Icebergs, Photo by Ghost Presenter from Pexels

Doing the International Falls shuffle; winter of January 2019 and some of the lowest U.S. temperatures ever recorded; video of the frosty Midwest; the polar vortex, climate change and other extreme weather events; and accepting the facts.


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The International Falls Shuffle

Greetings! Have you been practicing the International Falls shuffle? It’s not a new dance fad; rather, it’s the way people move safely across the ice in International Falls, Minnesota, during winter. Granted, International Falls residents have had plenty of chances to practice their moves, since the polar vortex swept into town. In fact, at one point last week it was colder in International Falls, Minnesota, than it was at the South Pole—factoring in wind chill. That is something!

Yet, even when Wednesday’s temperatures fell to minus 36.4°F (minus 38°C), the citizens of International Falls appeared to take the bitter cold in stride:

But in this little city of 6,000 people, people were carrying on as usual, using a few tricks they’ve learned from a lifetime of frigid temperatures.
— Adam Gabbatt, The Guardian

Broken Temperature Records

And according to the Capital Weather Gang at the Washington Post:

“More than 680 temperature records were broken or tied this week … .”


The frosty views from across the Midwest

A record-shattering Arctic blast hit parts of Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and beyond durning the polar vortex in January 2019.

The Polar Vortex and Climate Change

But how can Earth be warming, given recent cold weather extremes? As a reminder, 2018 was the fourth warmest year on record. The hottest year was 2016, followed by 2015 and 2017, respectively. Though these numbers aren’t official yet because the government shutdown prevented scientists from publishing the final results. It’s important to remember, too, that, overall, U.S. winters are warmer than they used to be.

Also, it’s possible that climate change is causing polar vortex events to occur more often. As the Arctic warms, the jet stream becomes wavier, bringing cold Arctic air farther south. But it’s important to point out that not all scientists agree with this theory. Robert McSweeney at Carbon Brief has published an excellent post detailing the relationship—if there is one, and many prominent scientists think there is—between Arctic warming, the polar vortex, extreme heatwaves, floods and droughts. Though this particular piece is not for the faint of heart; it covers a lot of climate science.

It’s a fact: Earth is Warming because of Humans

But, make no mistake: Even if scientists disagree on some of the details, at least 97 percent of climate scientists agree that Earth is warming and that “Climate-warming trends over the last century are extremely likely due to human activities.” (

The polar vortex be damned; if you doubt that Earth is warming, based on the recent North American cold snap, just pay a visit to Port Augusta, Australia, where temperatures last month climbed to 49.5°C (121.1°F). I’m sure the people who live there would be glad to weigh in on the matter. —Laura

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