Is Another Polar Vortex Headed Our Way?

They called it “historic.” They called it “cataclysmic.” They called it a “once in a lifetime” weather event.

I’m referring to Winter Storm Uri in 2021. It may still be fresh in your memory. Wind chills of 15 degrees below zero have a tendency to do that. 

This vicious storm impacted more than 170 million people. Nearly 10 million of them experienced power outages. It resulted in hundreds of deaths. And over $25 billion in damages. 

Uri was particularly devastating in Texas and other Southern states. Folks there had never seen anything like it. Temperatures in the teens for days on end froze water pipes, knocked out power and disrupted supply chains. 

It’s Forming as We Speak

Now, if this truly were a once in a lifetime event, Americans wouldn’t have to worry about it occurring again. Including in areas generally unaccustomed to ongoing freezing temps.

But here’s what a recent article in the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram revealed: The polar vortex that caused the “Great Texas Freeze” could occur again.

In fact, weather experts say another one is forming in the stratosphere over the North Pole as we speak. It’s expected to be a factor as winter approaches.

If that occurs, it’s possible extremely cold air will once again sink down through Canada and into the continental U.S. And once again it could easily make its way into Southern states and even Mexico.

February Storm Battered America

More on the polar vortex in a moment. It’s important to remember that Uri was just one of many recent winter storms. And they all knocked out electrical power. 

Back in February, a winter storm caused power outages for more than 1 million people. It closed hundreds of miles of highways. From Wyoming to Arizona. It even resulted in the first blizzard warning for Southern California in decades. 

Many northern states were also affected by the storm. Including Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. And as far east as New York.

Schools were closed. Thousands of flights were canceled. Countless drivers were left stranded on snow-bound roads for hours. High winds and snow in the Pacific Northwest cost the lives of several climbers and hikers. 

Christmas ‘Gift’ Was Worse Than Coal

Two months prior to that storm, nearly 2 million U.S. homes and businesses lost power due to a Christmas Eve and Christmas Day storm.

Blizzards in northern areas including Pennsylvania and Michigan. Freezing rain in the Pacific Northwest. Both resulted in numerous traffic accidents and canceled flights. More than 65 million people in the eastern U.S. were warned of rolling blackouts.

Once again, America had been hit by a storm that enveloped much of the country. It stretched from the Great Lakes near Canada to the Rio Grande along the Mexico border. Plus the Northwest and the Rocky Mountain regions.

Dangerously cold wind chills meant frostbite could occur in minutes. Some folks died in vehicle pile-ups on the Ohio Turnpike. Another driver perished when he skidded into a creek in Kansas City, Missouri.

Strong Vortex Means Stability

Back to that polar vortex for a moment. A polar vortex is an extensive coverage of low pressure and cold air surrounding the North and South Poles.

The stronger the vortex is, the better for us. A strong vortex means it’s stable. And that means it stays where it belongs – above the Poles.

The problem occurs when a polar vortex weakens or gets disrupted. The jet stream that normally shifts northward (over the North Pole) now becomes wavy. 

This allows warm air to move into the Arctic. And polar air to sink down into places where it’s not welcome. Such as Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. 

Weak Vortex Means Cold Air Outbreak

Amy Butler is a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stratosphere expert. Here’s how she explained what happened with Winter Storm Uri. 

“The polar vortex weakened,” she said. “It got stretched out of shape and slid southward off the pole.

“Most of the time when this happens – and it happens on average about every other year in the Arctic – some part of the mid-latitudes will ultimately experience a cold air outbreak.

“The disruption of the vortex encouraged the polar jet stream to become wavier for several weeks. And in combination with other weather patterns, created favorable conditions for a severe cold air outbreak in the central U.S.”   

Consider Water Needs in an Outage

Over the last few years, we’ve learned to expect the unexpected. At least we should have learned that by now.

And by “expect,” I mean to be as prepared for it as possible. When winter storms cause blackouts, we need ways to cook food and get clean water without power. 

One way to do this is with a solar cooker. Just let the sun provide the free energy you need to heat water for cooking and cleaning.

Winter storms are coming. And so are power outages. That’s what we know. It’s time to also determine how we’re going to deal with them.


  • Michael Nelson - November 19, 2023

    Thinking of winter reminds me of a couple of things 1: the polar vortex happened two years in a row. Including 20 degrees below zero. Not wind chill, actual HIGH temperature. 2 : It’s more than 30 years ago now but October 31, 1991. 28 3/4 inches of snow in less than 12 hours.
    Winter here, on the edge of the prairie, is nobody’s friend. Summer isn’t much better, I would guess people from parts of the south know all about this 90+ degrees and insanely high dew points and humidity that you wouldn’t believe. Land of 10,000 lakes, they call it.
    Winter makes me want to move back to Portland. I lived there for 10 years. Winters were mich milder, a Really cold night produced a thin rim of ice around the puddles.
    The only drawbacks in the city was daily, constant drizzle. Some people don’t do well without sun.
    A guy I worked with, knowing where? I was from, used to say “it’s a dry cold.” My response was “yeah, but you don’t have to shovel rain.”

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