Frigid temperatures and snowstorms are expected to hit the United States by this weekend

By Joelle Goldstein
January 11, 2021 05:12 PM
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People gearing up for cold weather
| Credit: ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty

2021 is here — and it's starting off with a bone-chilling bang.

In the coming days, Americans are being warned to brace themselves for a period of extreme cold brought on by this year's polar vortex, Bloomberg Green reported.

The vortex — which hit the U.S. in 2019 and led to at least 21 deaths — will likely cause temperatures across the country to plummet and bring the potential for snowstorms, according to USA Today.

"I do expect that eventually, winter weather will become more active across the U.S. post-MLK Day," meteorologist Judah Cohen of Atmospheric and Environmental Research told the outlet.

But what exactly is a polar vortex and how long will it last? Here's everything you need to know about the approaching frigid weather.

The science behind the Polar Vortex
| Credit: NOAA

What is a polar vortex?

The polar vortex describes the low-pressure system surrounding both of Earth's poles that flow the cold air in a counter-clockwise direction, according to the National Weather Service.

The vortex typically strengthens and expands in the winter, which sends cold air southward and may cause "large outbreaks of Arctic air in the United States," the NWS reported.

In years past, there have been several of these bone-chilling events, including in 1977, 1982, 1985, 1989 and 2014, according to the NWS.

The most recent one took place in January 2019, which broke at least 160 records in the Midwest and Northeast, with temperatures reaching as low as -14 in Detroit.

What to expect?

In addition to freezing temperatures, AccuWeather long-range expert Paul Pastelok told USA Today that storms are likely headed towards the United States' way.

"The weather pattern setting up across the East suggests the potential for a big storm to develop in the Plains and potentially impact the mid-Atlantic or Northeast around Jan. 18 or 19," Pastelok told the outlet.

Cohen also told the outlet that despite the vortex temporarily splitting last week, "there will be another more robust split of the polar vortex at the end of this week."

Western Europe and China are already experiencing a wave of cold weather, with Paris recording temperatures 3.5 degrees below normal, Madrid with temperatures 6.9 degrees colder and Beijing hitting a record-low of -9 on Thursday, Bloomberg Green reported.

RELATED VIDEO: Temperatures Reach -50 Degrees In Some Areas As Polar Vortex Hits the US

How long will it last?

It's difficult for meteorologists to predict exactly how long the polar vortex will last, but Jason Furtado, an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma's School of Meteorology, told CNN that its effects could be lengthy — especially in the troposphere, where nearly all weather conditions take place.

"In the stratosphere, the polar vortex typically recovers in strength within a couple of weeks of the peak of the event," Furtado explained to the outlet. "However, in the troposphere, the effects of the SSW [sudden stratospheric warming] event (e.g., a further south jet stream, cold and stormy weather) can last for up to 8 weeks."

"So, these events, which can evolve quickly, can have lasting impacts on the winter weather patterns in the troposphere," he added.

Is there a chance it won't happen?

Despite the likelihood of cold temperatures, Jim Rouiller, lead meteorologist with the Energy Weather Group LLC., told Bloomberg Green there's also a chance they may not happen at all.

"Many times in the past, the forecast for a cold weather event across the country resulted in a false alarm," Rouiller told the outlet, citing changes of gears in the atmosphere.

As Americans wait to see whether a polar vortex sweeps through, weather officials are reminding people of what to do if the cold comes in.

This includes checking the forecast, adjusting travel schedules, watching for frostbite, dressing appropriately, checking pipes and salting walkways, the NWS reported.