News and Tribune

January 25, 2014

DODD: Polar vortex stirs up polar frenzy

By LINDON DODD
Local columnist

— When I put on my coat to take out the garbage, it didn’t want to go” — Anonymous

This week’s column will be a literary vortex. In case you don’t know what that is or have never heard of it, that’s because I just coined the term. Just like the weather men and women this past week I thought if I used a term it might catch on much like the new catch phrase — polar vortex being used in weather circles.

I have tried to research the term polar vortex. It seems that the term has been around since as early as the 1850s. If that’s the case I wonder why I heard it for the first time in the last two weeks and now I hear it every time I turn on a weather forecast.

This whole phenomenon reminds me of the famous El Niño and la Niña weather terms. A couple of hurricanes struck the coast and suddenly El Niño and la Niña caused every weather pattern for several years. Then, as suddenly as El Niño and la Niña became all the weather craze — they were gone. We still have hurricanes and tornados and flooding. But it has been many years since El Niño or la Niña were given any credit.

It was probably two weeks ago when I first heard the words polar vortex. It is a phenomenon that occurs when a persistent polar cyclone is located near the planet’s geographical poles. The cold air will usually circulate in a counter-clockwise motion and for several reasons will sometimes drop lower into the northern hemisphere. Apparently it has something to do with the jet stream being displaced by Antarctic air masses which in turn makes things colder than a well digger’s backside.

It’s been pretty cold before in my lifetime. How come nobody blamed that on the polar vortex?

Whatever the reason the current polar vortex occurrence has sent all of us into some kind of polar frenzy. I once spent a winter in North Chicago and swore I would never spend a winter any farther north than Southern Indiana. It seems like this year a northern winter has come to live with me.

I always seem to think that any time a weather phenomenon takes place that the news and weather people get downright giddy about it. It seems the more uncomfortable the weather makes us feel — the giddier they become. It’s almost as if they feel a sense of power over the rest of us because we haven’t studied things like polar vortex’s or jet stream displacement.

I listened to one the other night talking about the temperatures and they threw out the old polar vortex thing like a weapon. It was like being held hostage by a meteorological terror act. He kept telling me how the polar vortex had taken over for the next couple of weeks.

However, what I find most consistent about weather forecasting is the inconsistency of the forecasts. Take snow fall estimates for example. Their forecasts are always like when the cable or phone installer tells me I will be there between noon and 6 o’clock. They are never held to any kind of an accurate number in their predictions. Two to six inches is not an accurate prediction. I could make that guestimate any time snow is on the way and claim accuracy.

And why do weathermen and women think they have to stand outside in the midst of any weather phenomena to make us understand it’s cold, snowy, or wet. Why do they think we have to see them turning blue on live television to believe that a wind chill of 15 degrees below zero is cold? We get it while they are holding on to a pole and floating sideways that the wind is intense. Usually I could look outside my own window and reinforce the fact.

I do love how the weather forecaster’s keep trying to predict the weather. They have computer models and blue screens so fancy that a Hollywood film maker would be envious. They sometimes have three or four meteorologists on the air simultaneously as if one cannot alone make the call and look outside and tell me when it’s raining.

I suspect part of the problem is the fact that meteorology is not considered a cool calling. Most of the kids going into it were probably first class nerds who went to the prom with their cousin. They were ignored and studied hard. And then, one day, there they are commanding all of our attention with their weather bulletins breaking into my favorite show of the week.

One weather phenomenon I have seen in the last couple of decades is that weather girls seem to be getting hotter and hotter — and not in the meteorological sense. Can you imagine an ugly girl sitting in a modern day meteorology class who wanted to be a television weather person? Now, there’s a real career challenge.

In the end I don’t think with all of the new radar and computer model technology that the weather forecasting isn’t all that much more accurate. It always seems to me that a 75 percent accurate forecaster would be a shining star and that anyone who regularly nails it 50 percent of the time would have a safe job. But, hey, hitting .500 in Major League baseball is a ticket to Cooperstown.

I will be watching the weather on a nightly basis in the near future just like I always have. I won’t expect anything more than an educated guess. If they are right I will take it for granted. If they are wrong, I will complain like everyone else. And in the end like most guys watching the weather forecast I will endure their babble until it comes time for what I really want to hear; the sport’s report.

Polar vortex my ...!

— Lindon Dodd is a freelance writer who can be reached at lindon.dodd@hotmail.com