Thawing Siberian permafrost could see anthrax and prehistoric diseases come back to life as temperatures warm rapidly

 and create a breeding ground for dormant spores, scientist claims

  • Thawing Siberian permafrost may release viral spores buried for 2,500 years  
  • Buried mass animal graves that died of the disease could unleash an epidemic
  • Anthrax spores can lie dormant until temperature rises to 15°C  
  • ‘Methane bombs’ found in the region further accelerate disease spread 

The coldest city on Earth may unleash vast prehistoric stores of anthrax and other ancient diseases as the permafrost trapping its deadly spores slowly thaws out thanks to global warming.

Yakutsk, in north-east Russia, is completely frozen for 12 months a year but is currently being subjected to soaring global temperatures.

It is also home to ancient permafrost which has entombed and trapped prehistoric animals such as the now extinct species of wild horses and woolly mammoths.

These animals may have died from anthrax and other hideous prehistoric diseases and some scientists fear these the spores may be lying dormant, waiting for warmer temperatures to melt the ice and release them into the 21st century.


A disease outbreak in 2016 killed thousands of reindeer and hundreds of people were hospitalised due to the ‘revival’ of ancient anthrax spores in the region.

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The city of Yakutsk pictured)  in the region of Yakutia in Siberia, known as the coldest city on earth where temperatures can reach below -60°C in the winter. It may be revealing its long-frozen secrets due to warming Arctic temperatures that could risk an epidemic being unleashed

The city of Yakutsk pictured)  in the region of Yakutia in Siberia, known as the coldest city on earth where temperatures can reach below -60°C in the winter. It may be revealing its long-frozen secrets due to warming Arctic temperatures that could risk an epidemic being unleashed

Around two-thirds of Russia is made up of permafrost – including almost all of the area known as Yakutia.

As permafrost continues to thaw, more ancient bacteria could be released. Permafrost is able to preserve for hundreds of thousands of years – possibly even a million.

Boris Kershengolts, a Yakutsk biologist told the Telegraph: ‘Anthrax spores can stay alive in the permafrost for up to 2,500 years. That’s scary given the thawing of animal burial grounds from the 19th century.

He added: ‘It would be a disaster not just for the Arctic.

‘The catastrophe could exceed Chernobyl.’

The ice in the Siberian region can be hundreds of feet deep and the top layer is known as the ‘active layer’ which freezes and refreezes throughout the year.

In recent years, researchers have found that this layer is not only thawing earlier in the year, it is also melting to greater depth, causing scientists to be concerned of potential collapses.

Increased snow precipitation experienced by most of the region in the last few decades also insulates the ground permafrost which is then a higher temperature than air temperature.

Current levels of permafrost shrinkage in the region is at the scale of up to two inches (5cm) a year.

The threat of epidemic is real, as a 2016 outbreak of Anthrax – the first outbreak for 70 years – in the Arctic in Yamal in Northwest Sibera was linked to thawing permafrost.

Scientists managed to isolate the Anthrax strains Bacillus anthracis and had independently isolated the strain in Yakutia in 2015, although no outbreak occurred there.

Scientists have compared a potential epidemic to being more 'catastrophic' than the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl. Ancient Siberian permafrost burying mass animal graves and a former Anthrax lab in the coldest city on Earth Yakutsk, could throw up dormant viral spores if it continues to melt

Scientists have compared a potential epidemic to being more ‘catastrophic’ than the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl. Ancient Siberian permafrost burying mass animal graves and a former Anthrax lab in the coldest city on Earth Yakutsk, could throw up dormant viral spores if it continues to melt


Anthrax is the name of the potentially-deadly disease caused by the spores of bacteria Bacillus anthracis.

As the disease can survive in harsh climates, Anthrax spores have been weaponised by at least five countries: Britain, Japan, the United States, Russia and Iraq.

The disease can be contracted by touching, inhaling or swallowing spores, which can lie dormant in water and soil for years.

It is most deadly, however, when the spores are inhaled, which is why the threat of a letter containing the disease is taken very seriously by authorities.

About 80 per cent of people who inhale the spores will die, in some cases even with immediate medical intervention.

Sources: NHS and US Centers for Disease Control

Thawing permafrost is worsened by the presence of so-called ‘methane bombs’ underground.

They release large volumes of the natural gases which speeds up the melting of the permanently frozen land.

This creates vast crater-like structures which can trigger explosions and release heat.

Methane contains 30 times more energy than carbon dioxide and is a key greenhouse gas.

Permafrost - ground that has been frozen for at least two years - covers 25 per cent of the Northern Hemisphere, keeping ancient bacteria, viruses and carbon preserved and locked away, much like a freezer does. Pictured is a map of permafrost extent across Arctic region

Permafrost – ground that has been frozen for at least two years – covers 25 per cent of the Northern Hemisphere, keeping ancient bacteria, viruses and carbon preserved and locked away, much like a freezer does. Pictured is a map of permafrost extent across Arctic region

'Methane bombs' found locally could further aggravate the problem with by accelerating temperature rises and therefore the spread of disease. After the explosion they lead to the formation of bizarre Arctic craters. Pictured is a crater formed by a recent permafrost explosion in the Russian arctic

‘Methane bombs’ found locally could further aggravate the problem with by accelerating temperature rises and therefore the spread of disease. After the explosion they lead to the formation of bizarre Arctic craters. Pictured is a crater formed by a recent permafrost explosion in the Russian arctic


Permafrost, mostly found in high-latitude regions like the Arctic, stores large quantities of carbon dioxide and methane, which are released into the atmosphere if the soil melts and decomposes.

As permafrost melts and releases gases into the atmosphere which cause warming, permafrost melts even more, releasing more of these gases such as methane and CO2, leading a positive feedback loop that worsens climate change.

But other threats posed by melting permafrost include:

  • Release of ancient microbes: In late August, an anthrax outbreak in Siberia caused 72 people to become sick, and killed a 12-year-old boy. This was because an anthrax-infected reindeer had thawed, releasing the bacteria.
  • Damaged landscapes and roads: When the ice in the permafrost thaws, the water runs off and the ground above can slump, deform, or fall apart. TheAlaska Dispatch News has reported that thawing permafrost is warping roads in Bethel, Alaska.
  • Loss of historical records: Thawing permaforst could also threaten natural historical records. For example, ‘Otzi’, a 5-300 year-old dead man found in the Alps, would not have been so well preserved if he had thawed.
As permafrost melts and releases gases into the atmosphere which cause warming, permafrost melts even more, releasing more of these gases such as methane and CO2, leading a positive feedback loop that worsens climate change

As permafrost melts and releases gases into the atmosphere which cause warming, permafrost melts even more, releasing more of these gases such as methane and CO2, leading a positive feedback loop that worsens climate change

Spring blizzard fueled by Arctic warming, climate change

The blizzard pummeling the Upper Midwest and Plain States has already dished out widespread thundersnow, winds gusts close to 70 mph and over 2 feet of snow in spots. On top of that, it’s happening in the month of April, just three weeks after the record-breaking bomb cyclone. By any measure these storms are considered extreme, but climate change is making them even more extreme.

The intensity of the storm is being powered by a sharp 60-degree temperature contrast — 80s in the Southeast and 20s in the Dakotas. Strong contrasts are typical for spring as warm and moist air surges north from the Gulf of Mexico and winter cold remains stubborn. But there’s an added feature heightening the contrast called “Arctic amplification.”

Meteorologists United on Climate Change@MetsUnite

This anomaly map is off the charts. Temperatures range from 30 degrees below normal to 20 degrees above normal on either side of the system.

See Meteorologists United on Climate Change’s other Tweets

Over the past couple of decades, the Arctic has warmed much faster than of the mid-latitudes, especially in winter. Warming of the globe is being caused by heat trapping greenhouse gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels. In the Arctic this warming effect is enhanced by melting sea ice. Ice typically reflects sunlight, keeping the Arctic cool. But since 1970 Arctic sea ice volume has decreased by 50%. Right now, Arctic sea ice extent is at record low levels.

Zack Labe


sea ice extent continues as a record low for the date.

It is ~250,000 km² below the prior record low, which was set just last year.

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This lack of ice results in a feedback loop with more heat being absorbed. The past few weeks are a good example of that phenomenon as the Arctic, including Alaska, has experienced record-breaking heat. Warmer-than-normal air stretches from Alaska east through Canada to Greenland. That broad warming has displaced a cold pool of air southward into the U.S. mainland. Consequently, the storm moving across the nation’s middle has an excess of warm-cold contrast to feed off of.

Jeff Berardelli@WeatherProf

How does climate change lead to extreme weather? Here’s a clear connection. The Arctic is unusually warm now. Much is forced by climate change-Arctic Amplification. That warm wall displaces cold air south & intensifies the thermal contrast, resulting in a more extreme blizzard!

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In this way it is easy to see a direct link between changing climate, specifically in the Arctic, and extreme weather events elsewhere. What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.

“This is a very active area of climate change research,” said Sean Sublette, a meteorologist at Climate Central, a non-profit focusing on climate change communication. “There is compelling evidence linking the warming Arctic to changing jet stream patterns in middle latitudes here in the United States. These changes could lead to a slower moving jet stream, which is more susceptible to large southerly dips.”

When cold pockets embedded in the jet stream dip further south, they interact with air from the sub-tropics.

“Yesterday’s cyclone advected air from the Gulf of Mexico, which was anomalously warm for the season making it more intense. A warmer Gulf is what we would expect from climate change,” explained Dr. Andreas Prein, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

Prein says all weather events are affected by climate change because they develop in a warmer and moister climate than in the early 20th century. The degree of affect varies from event to event. But simple physics dictates that as the atmosphere warms it holds more water vapor and drops more precipitation.

This has been especially true in the Upper Midwest where extreme events have dumped close to 40% more precipitation since 1958. This has led to an increase in river flooding.

And the trend is expected to continue into the future. The 2018 U.S. federal government’s National Climate Assessment projects that overall precipitation in the Upper Midwest may increase around 20% by late century, with an even greater share falling in extreme weather events.

View image on TwitterView image on Twitter

Jeff Berardelli@WeatherProf

Image left: Trends in river flooding magnitude since 1920s. Green triangles show increases which are most prominent in the Upper Midwest. Image Right: Projected changes in winter/spring rainfall by later this century. Image credit NCA 2014 and 2018

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Since January 1, areas of the Upper Midwest and Plains States have experienced more than two and a half times the normal precipitation. As a result, dozens of river gauges in the area are still registering major or moderate flooding. The extreme storm hitting this week is likely to make the flooding worse in the coming days.

As climate change continues to escalate, the adverse impacts on our everyday lives will grow. Prein stresses more study is needed.  “Climate attribution studies have to be conducted to study the exact impact of climate change on these cyclones but events like these might become more frequent and more severe in the future.”

Researchers Warn Arctic Has Entered ‘Unprecedented State’ That Threatens Global Climate Stability

“Never have so many Arctic indicators been brought together in a single paper.” And the findings spell trouble for the entire planet.

The Yukon River winds through western interior Alaska in early April. (Photo: UAF/Todd Paris)

The Yukon River winds through western interior Alaska in early April. (Photo: UAF/Todd Paris)

A new research paper by American and European climate scientists focused on Arctic warming published Monday reveals that the “smoking gun” when it comes to changes in the world’s northern polar region is rapidly warming air temperatures that are having—and will continue to have—massive and negative impacts across the globe.

The paper new paper—titled “Key Indicators of Arctic Climate Change: 1971–2017“—is the work of scientists at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland in Copenhagen (GUES).

“The Arctic system is trending away from its 20th century state and into an unprecedented state, with implications not only within but beyond the Arctic.” —Jason Box, GUES

“The Arctic system is trending away from its 20th century state and into an unprecedented state, with implications not only within but beyond the Arctic,” said Jason Box of the GUES, lead author of the study. “Because the Arctic atmosphere is warming faster than the rest of the world, weather patterns across Europe, North America and Asia are becoming more persistent, leading to extreme weather conditions. Another example is the disruption of the ocean circulation that can further destabilize climate: for example, cooling across northwestern Europe and strengthening of storms.”

John Walsh, chief scientist at AUF’s research center, was the one who called arctic air tempertures the “smoking gun” discovered during the research—a finding the team did not necessarily anticipate.

“I didn’t expect the tie-in with temperature to be as strong as it was,” Walsh said. “All the variables are connected with temperature. All components of the Arctic system are involved in this change.”

The study, published Monday as the flagship piece in a special issue on Arctic climate change indicators published by the journal Environmental Research Letters, is the first of its kind to combine observations of physical climate indicators—such as snow cover, rainfall, and seasonal measurements of sea ice extent—with biological impacts, such as a mismatch in the timing of flowers blooming and pollinators working.  According to Walsh, “Never have so many Arctic indicators been brought together in a single paper.”

This three-and-a-half minute video put together by the research team, explains its methodology and findings in detail:

The new study comes as temperature records in the polar regions continue to break record after record. Last week, climatologists said Alaska experienced the highest March temperatures ever recorded.

Statewide temperatures averaged 27°F degrees last month, a full 4 degrees higher than the record set in 1965. Brian Brettschneider, a climatologist with the International Arctic Research Center at University of Alaska Fairbanks, told the Anchorage Daily News, “We’re not just eking past records. This is obliterating records.”

Also last month, as Common Dreams reported, the UN Environment Programme (ENUP) warned in a far-reaching report that winter temperatures in the Arctic are already “locked in” in such a way that significant sea level increases are now inevitable this century.

Rising temperatures, along with ocean acidification, pollution, and thawing permafrost threaten the Arctic and the more than four million people who inhabit it, including 10 percent who are Indigenous. But, as UNEP acting executive director Joyce Msuya noted at the time, “What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.”

That warning was echoed by the researchers behind the new study out Monday. Their hope, they said, is that the findings about air temperatures and the delicate interconnections between the climate and other natural systems in the Artic will “provide a foundation for a more integrated understanding of the Arctic and its role in the dynamics of the Earth’s biogeophysical systems.”

How to save the Arctic’s moderating role on global warming

The Arctic plays a critical role in maintaining a safe and stable global climate, with its reflective sea ice that sends significant incoming solar radiation safely back to space and its permanently frozen tundra that secures ancient stores of carbon dioxide and methane.

But the Arctic is warming at twice the global average, threatening to break what may be the weakest link in the chain of climate protection. The amplified Arctic warming is causing the reflective sea ice to melt, exposing darker water that absorbs more incoming solar radiation. It also is causing permafrost to thaw, releasing carbon dioxide and methane. Both processes are self-reinforcing feedback loops, in which initial warming feeds upon itself to cause still more warming. Feeding warming and making it stronger is not a strategy for success.

The recent UN Arctic report synthesizes existing research to show that even if climate emissions were halted today, Arctic warming would continue for at least two decades. This is due to past and present emissions and the return of heat stored in the ocean, where 90 percent of the warming we’ve caused ends up.  Of course emissions are continuing.

Fast mitigation at scale can still slow future Arctic warming, starting with immediate cuts to the short-lived climate pollutants—black carbon, methane, tropospheric ozone, and hydrofluorocarbons. Cutting emissions of these short-lived pollutants immediately can reduce the rate of Arctic warming by up to two-thirds. Fast cuts to carbon dioxide also are important, but over the next two decades they will actually add warming. This is because co-emitted cooling aerosols from fossil fuels like coal wash out of the atmosphere in days to weeks and unmask existing warming, while much of the carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years to continue causing warming.

Even with fast and dramatic cuts to short-lived pollutants, the race to save the safety functions of the Arctic will now be difficult. For starters, the Arctic is projected to become ice free in the summer months within 15 years, with an uncertainty range of plus or minus 10 years, so perhaps as soon at five years, or if we’re unusually lucky, perhaps 25 years. Losing the reflective ice shield will add tremendous warming to the Arctic, which will spread significant warming throughout the globe. The permafrost also is thawing, releasing more carbon dioxide and methane, a super climate pollutant 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over the next two decades.

Because the Arctic’s role in regulating the global climate is a critical link in the chain of climate protection—and perhaps the weakest link—it should be the focus of an all-out effort to keep it strong and safe. This requires cutting emissions of short-lived pollutants, as California has shown the world how to do. It also requires speeding up strategies to remove carbon dioxide we’ve already emitted, including natural processes that use photosynthesis to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in trees, grasslands, wetlands, and other biomass, while using the root systems to rebuild soil carbon. Other strategies for capturing and utilizing carbon dioxide in products are getting ready to move to commercial scale, meaning that costs would drop rapidly. Finally, we need a crash program to speed mechanical means of direct air capture of carbon dioxide, as many leading scientists and climate experts are advocating. With the need to remove up to a trillion (1,000 billion) tons of carbon dioxide over the century, this will be a whale of a market opportunity.

Can the world meet this challenge, even as global emissions are going up again after three years of no growth, and coal, the worst climate polluter, remains stubbornly near its historic level globally at 27 percent of the world’s energy mix, with projections that it will decline only slightly to 25 percent by 2023? Equally troubling, the US is now one of the leading producers of crude oil, rivaling both Russia and Saudi Arabia and on target by 2025 to produce as much as both combined. How much harder will it be for the United States to pursue a low-emissions climate policy, when it must wrestle with the growing geopolitical power related to such oil dominance?

The oil majors and their investors are predicting increasing demand for fossil fuel products over at least the next couple of decades, although their future is now threatened by growing carbon constraints, including lawsuits to make the oil majors pay for the climate pollution they’ve contributed for decades after they knew the risk their products were causing. Establishing the liability of the fossil fuel industry for climate impacts and making polluters pay for them would help remove the single biggest barrier to climate protection. But such a legal outcome is not enough to deal with the overall climate problem, nor is it guaranteed to occur.

The desperate race to maintain the Arctic’s stabilizing role in the global climate means we also need to put geoengineering squarely into the policy mix, and risk the hazards, moral or otherwise, this could present. We should start with “soft” geoengineering that can be scaled up and reversed if side effects become too troubling. One example is Ice911’s strategy to use silica-based glass microspheres to cover thin, first-year ice in the Arctic to enhance reflectivity and grow stronger multiyear ice. It’s working in small experiments, and could be scaled up quickly, with careful monitoring for side effects.

While riskier, another geoengineering strategy involves the introduction of  cooling particles into the atmosphere to reflect solar radiation back to space, as observed following the 1991 volcanic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines. Solar geoengineering may be able to cut half the warming from a doubling of carbon dioxide, according to the results of an idealized model experiment that showed this could be done without exacerbating temperature, water availability, extreme temperature, or extreme precipitation in any region. Nevertheless, the threat that some regions could be harmed by this strategy will continue to cast a long shadow and make such a policy course challenging to enact. Such a strategy would be even more problematic if sulfate particles were used, as this would delay recovery of the stratospheric ozone layer.

Even so, we’ve reached the point where the risk of losing the Arctic’s ability to regulate the global climate appears greater than the risk of experimenting with geoengineering. It’s time to start learning what works best, while developing a strong governance system for geoengineering efforts.

Time is of the essence, and speed must become the new metric for measuring all climate strategies. We need to know how fast a given strategy can reduce warming in the near term, and go all out with the fastest. As General MacArthur said of the history of war, defeat can be summed up in two words: “Too late.”  We don’t want that to be the epitaph for our generation.


Sharp rise in Arctic temperatures now inevitable, UN warns

Sharp and potentially devastating temperature rises of 3C to 5C in the Arctic are now inevitable even if the world succeeds in cutting greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris agreement, research has found.

The UN has warned that arctic temperatures are likely to rise by 3-5C above pre-industrial levels, even if the Paris Agreement goals are met

The UN has warned that arctic temperatures are likely to rise by 3-5C above pre-industrial levels, even if the Paris Agreement goals are met

Winter temperatures at the north pole are likely to rise by at least 3C above pre-industrial levels by mid-century, and there could be further rises to between 5C and 9C above the recent average for the region, according to the UN.

Such changes would result in rapidly melting ice and permafrost, leading to sea level rises and potentially to even more destructive levels of warming. Scientists fear Arctic heating could trigger a climate “tipping point” as melting permafrost releases the powerful greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere, which in turn could create a runaway warming effect.

“What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic,” UN environment’s acting director Joyce Msuya said.

“We have the science. Now more urgent climate action is needed to steer away from tipping points that could be even worse for our planet than we first thought.”

The findings, presented at the UN Environment assembly in Nairobi on Wednesday (13 March) , give a stark picture of one of the planet’s most sensitive regions and one that is key to the fate of the world’s climate.

Last year’s stark warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), setting out the dramatic impacts of 1.5C of global warming, did not include the impacts of potential tipping points such as melting permafrost.

If melting permafrost triggers a tipping point, the likely results would be global temperature rises well in excess of the 2C set as the limit of safety under the Paris agreement. Nearly half of Arctic permafrost could be lost even if global carbon emissions are held within the Paris agreement limits, according to the UN study.

Even if all carbon emissions were to be halted immediately, the Arctic region would still warm by more than 5C by the century’s end, compared with the baseline average from 1986 to 2005, according to the study from UN Environment.

That is because so much carbon has already been poured into the atmosphere. The oceans also have become vast stores of heat, the effect of which is being gradually revealed by changes at the poles and on global weather systems, and will continue to be felt for decades to come.

The assembly heard that there was still a need to fulfil the aims of the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change and to take further action that could stave off some of the worst effects of warming in the near term. “We need to make substantial near-term cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, black carbon and other so-called short-lived climate pollutants all over the world,” said Kimmo Tiilikainen, Finland’s environment minister.

Making drastic cuts to black carbon and short-lived pollutants such as methane could reduce warming by more than 0.5C, according to previous research.

Fiona Harvey

This article first appeared on the Guardian

edie is part of the Guardian Environment Network 

3-5°C temperature rise is now ‘locked-in’ for the Arctic

Even if the world were to cut emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, winter temperatures in the Arctic would rise 3-5°C by 2050 and 5-9°C by 2080, devastating the region and unleashing sea level rises worldwide, UN said. Other environmental p…
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Brace for the Polar Vortex; It May Be Visiting More Often

Syracuse on Sunday. “Winter is shortening, but you’re getting these more intensive periods in that shorter winter,” a researcher said.CreditDennis Nett/The Post-Standard, via Associated Press
Syracuse on Sunday. “Winter is shortening, but you’re getting these more intensive periods in that shorter winter,” a researcher said.CreditCreditDennis Nett/The Post-Standard, via Associated Press
  • Jan. 28, 2019

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Find your long johns, break out the thick socks and raid the supermarket. After a month of relatively mild winter weather, the Midwest and the East Coast are experiencing what has become a seasonal rite of passage: the polar vortex.

The phrase has become synonymous with frigid temperatures that make snowstorms more likely. And if it seems as if these polar freezes are happening more often, you’re right. “They are definitely becoming more common,” said Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center. “There have been a couple of studies that have documented that.”

Colder temperatures have been arriving later in winter over the past few years, according to Judah Cohen, a climatologist at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, a weather risk assessment firm. But because of changes to the polar vortex, when wintry weather does arrive, it’s often more intense — witness the four back-to-back nor’easters last year.

“I’ve been making that argument that winter is shortening, but you’re getting these more intensive periods in that shorter winter,” Dr. Cohen said.

[If it’s so cold outside, what happened to global warming? Read our explainer.]

Scientists are still trying to figure out why these intense arctic chills are flooding southward more frequently. To understand their thinking, it helps to understand the nature of the polar vortex. While the expression became broadly popular during an unusually cold winter in 2014, the vortex was known to meteorologists long before that.

A satellite image of low pressure from the polar vortex swooping across North America in January 2014.CreditNOAA, via Getty Images
A satellite image of low pressure from the polar vortex swooping across North America in January 2014.CreditNOAA, via Getty Images

The term refers to circular bands of winds near the poles that are strongest in wintertime and well above the jet stream in the stratosphere. The stratosphere is an atmospheric layer that extends roughly seven to 31 miles above the earth.

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Usually, those circular bands act as walls that keep the teeth-chattering cold air locked at the poles. But, every so often, the winds break down and allow the cold air to escape. That’s what happened at the beginning of January, when the polar vortex split into threeseparate bands.

Embedded video

Zac Lawrence@zd1awrence

Here is my “official” 3D animation of this year’s stratospheric split. Another beautiful event!

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It’s this escaping polar air that is dropping temperatures in the Midwest and the East — there’s a lag time between the atmospheric event and when we experience the effects. The broken vortex is also sending icy temperatures to much of Europe in what some call the “Beast From the East.”

Some researchers, including Dr. Francis and Dr. Cohen, say they suspect that the more frequent polar vortex breakdowns can be tied to climate change.

While climate change is warming the earth, not all parts of the earth are warming at the same rate; the Arctic is warming at a rate twice as fast as the world average. That warming has led to historically low levels of sea ice in the region. The melting sea ice, particularly in an area near the Barents and Kara Seas off Siberia, may be linked to the changes in the polar vortex.

“When we lose a lot of ice in that particular area in the summer, it absorbs a lot of extra heat from the sun,” Dr. Francis said. This is because the darker open ocean absorbs more heat than reflective ice. “And so we see a very persistent, hot spot there in terms of temperature differences from what they should be.”

Research suggests that the hot spot, along with changes in the jet stream driven by climate change, cause the polar vortex to break down in mid- to late winter.

“As the Arctic gets warmer and warmer, the severe weather picks up,” Dr. Cohen said.

In October, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a milder than average winter, but that is not necessarily at odds with the January chill.

“There’s a difference between some seasonal outlooks such as NOAA’s that look at the whole three-month period and others that may be breaking it down month by month,” said Bob Henson, a meteorologist with the forecasting service Weather Underground. “It’s quite possible the winter will average warm for December through February. But that may well manifest as the extreme warmth we’ve seen over the last month followed by some much colder and colder than average conditions into February.”

For more news on climate and the environment, follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.

Kendra Pierre-Louis is a reporter on the climate team.

This Is Why Global Warming Is Responsible For Freezing Temperatures Across The U.S.

In January of 2014, a displaced polar vortex brought extremely cold temperatures to many parts of the United States, causing Lake Michigan near Chicago to freeze over, as shown here. The current cold snap is extremely similar in nature, and is wreaking havoc across much of the continential United States right now, in 2019.EDWARD STOJAKOVIK / FLICKR

The country is freezing in an unprecedented fashion, and global warming is to blame. Sound crazy? The cold snap that North America is experiencing east of the rocky mountains, with temperatures at Arctic-like levels, is real, but it’s only part of the story. Simultaneously, there are record warm temperatures happening in other parts of the world, from Australia to the actual Arctic.


While a small but vocal minority of people might use the faulty logic of, “it’s cold where I am, therefore global warming isn’t real,” even schoolchildren know that weather isn’t climate. But these extreme cold snaps have gotten more severe in recent years, due to a combination of global warming and a phenomenon you’ve likely heard of: the polar vortex. Here’s the science of how it works, and why global warming is paradoxically playing a major role in today’s record-low temperatures.

The difference between a strong, stable polar vortex (L) and a weak, unstable one that can cause cold snaps and extremely cold weather across the mid-latitudes (R), such as the event we’re experiencing now.NOAA

When you think about the Earth, including its weather, climate, and temperature, what picture do you get in your head?

The best way to picture Earth is as a sphere rotating on its axis, but with two additional effects: the atmosphere and the oceans. As the Earth rotates on its axis, we experience warming during the day (in direct sunlight) and cooling at night (in the dark), as the Earth radiates its stored heat away into the depths of space. When our hemisphere is tilted towards the Sun, we experience summer months; when our hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun, we experience winter months.

The ocean stores tremendous amounts of heat, with ocean currents transporting that heat from one location to another. But in terms of these particular weather events we’re experiencing right now, the atmosphere is the biggest factor.

This graphic shows the global circulation of Earth’s atmosphere. Included in this display are Hadley cells, Ferrell cells and polar cells, along with the six different zones in the northern and southern hemispheres displaying the prevailing winds.WIKIMEDIA COMMONS USER KAIDOR

On any planet that rotates, you’ll have an effect called the prevailing winds. As the atmosphere circulates around the world, planet Earth typically experiences three different types of winds, normally confined to three different latitude zones:

  • 0° to 30°: where we get the trade winds, which blow from east to west and converge at the equator.
  • 30° to 60°: which give us the westerlies, which blow from west to east, and rise up towards the Arctic (or down towards the Antarctic) circle.
  • 60° to 90°: the polar cells, which are normally confined to the highest-latitude regions on Earth.

Although the latitude bands differ, this phenomenon is common to most rapidly rotating planets with atmospheres, including Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Earth, though, is a little bit special.

The ocean temperatures are warm enough in the equatorial regions, during the right seasons, to form tropical cyclones, and are cool enough, in the winter seasons, to form extreme polar vortices.BERKELEY EARTH SURFACE TEMPERATURE (BEST) TEAM

Because of the thinness of Earth’s atmosphere, our substantial axial tilt, the behavior of cloud cover and reflectivity at the poles, and a number of other factors, our planet has an extremely large temperature difference between the equator and the poles. This temperature difference is smallest in the summer, when the polar areas experience nearly 24 hours of continuous sunlight, and largest in the winter, where it’s almost always night.

As a result of these severe temperature differences, there is a persistent, large-scale, low-pressure zone that rotates in a cyclone-like fashion at each pole: from west to east. (Counterclockwise at the north pole, clockwise at the south pole.) These two zones are known as polar vortices, and they each start a few miles up in the atmosphere and extend well into the stratosphere.


The interplay between the atmosphere, clouds, moisture, land processes and the ocean all governs the evolution of Earth’s equilibrium temperature. The stratosphere, in particular, is of tremendous importance for phenomena like the Arctic’s polar vortex.NASA / SMITHSONIAN AIR & SPACE MUSEUM

Beneath them, you’ll typically find a large mass of cold, dense air surrounding each of the poles. Normally, these vortices are stable enough, as temperature and pressure differences are severe enough, to keep them in place throughout the year.

When the vortices are at their strongest, you get a single cell, and the air is extremely well-confined. When the vortices weaken, they can break up into two or more cells, and begin to migrate away from the poles. When they’re extremely weak, they can fragment, and some of that low pressure, low temperature air can begin to interact with the higher pressure, higher temperature air from outside the polar regions.

Earth in 2013 (at left) with a well-defined, single-cell, strong polar vortex, along with Earth in 2014 (at right) where the polar vortex became extremely weak, and migrated over the populous land masses of the mid-latitudes.NOAA / PMEL


Although the term has been around since the 1850s, few people heard of the polar vortex until earlier this decade, when it became so weak that it migrated over the North American and Eurasian continents, causing some of the coldest winter weather we’ve seen in recent history.

When the vortex at the north pole becomes extremely weak, the high pressure zones found in the middle latitudes of Earth (where the westerlies are) can push towards the poles, displacing the cold air. This causes the polar vortex to move farther south. In addition, the jet stream buckles, and deviates towards more populous, southern latitudes. As the cold, dry air from the poles comes in contact with the warm, moist air of the mid-latitudes, you get a dramatic weather change that we conventionally refer to as a cold snap.

When the polar vortex around the North Pole weakens, it causes much of the cold air at high latitudes to mix with the warm air in the mid-latitudes. This pushes the jet stream south, brings cold air to highly populous areas, and creates the conditions for a cold snap.

The weather we’re experiencing across much of the northern hemisphere is due to exactly this phenomenon, occurring right now.

But how is global warming to blame?


The answer is simple: because the phenomenon that causes the polar vortex to break down is known as sudden stratospheric warming, where the upper layers of the atmosphere increase in temperature by approximately 30–50 °C (54–90 °F) over the span of only a few days. The fact that there are land masses located where they are in the northern hemisphere means that as those land temperatures increase, they transport their heat to even more northern latitudes.

The polar vortex, typically, is a single-cell or double-cell region concentrated at polar latitudes. However, warming events along the land and in the sea near the poles have changed the temperature and pressure gradients in recent years, and are causing the polar vortex to destabilize. This results in the extreme weather events we’re experiencing more recently.NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE

The exact details of how this works are complex, but the explanation is simple: warmer land temperatures, particularly in northern North America and northern Eurasia, allow more heat to be transported into the Arctic stratosphere. A warmer Earth makes sudden stratospheric warming events more likely and more frequent. And those events destabilize the polar vortex, bring cold air down into the mid-latitudes, and cause the extreme weather we’re experiencing right now.

The temperature map of Earth on the day of Sunday, January 27th. Note how the southern, Antarctic region has its cold air relatively confined, while the northern, Arctic region has colder and warmer areas in uneven, perhaps unexpected locations.CLIMATEREANALYZER.ORG


As the Earth continues to warm, there will be reduced snow cover and less sea ice in these critical regions, which alters the pressure and temperature gradients of the regions at the boundary of the polar vortex. In extreme cases, the polar vortex weakens or collapses as a result. The migration of the jet stream is one of the first signs, and it has become an all-too-frequent phenomenon in recent years.

The enormous cold snap we experienced in 2014 wasn’t a one-off event. Although for many, that storm was so memorable it feels like it was only yesterday, we can absolutely expect these types of extreme weather events to become commonplace in the coming years. The climate is changing, and it’s affecting our weather in a variety of ways all across the globe.

In January of 2014, the term polar vortex came into the popular lexicon with a catastrophic cold snap that affected large portions of North America, causing enormous portions of Niagara Falls to freeze over, among other things. We can expect these events to be far more frequent going forward.MICHAEL MURAZ / FLICKR

Perhaps paradoxically, it’s a strong, extremely cold polar vortex that results in stable, warm temperatures across the more populous mid-latitudes in winter. This is one effect of climate change that’s already here, and will take centuries, in the best-case scenario, to reverse. There are freezing temperatures and an extraordinary cold snap affecting huge portions of the land mass in the northern hemisphere’s mid-latitudes right now, but this won’t feel extraordinary for long.


As the Earth continues to warm, extreme weather events like this will become commonplace, with many climatologists predicting an unstable polar vortex bringing storms like this to us multiple times per decade. Welcome to the new normal, courtesy of global warming, where the Arctic can’t even remain cold in the dead of winter.

Astrophysicist and author Ethan Siegel is the founder and primary writer of Starts With A Bang! His books, Treknology and Beyond The Galaxy, are available wherever books are sold.

What is the polar vortex and is global warming to blame?
Forecasters say millions of people in the Midwest and Great Lakes will see record-shattering wind chills from 40 to 65 degrees below zero this week — cold so extreme it could cause frostbite on exposed skin in five minutes or less. Some 100 million people will experience temperatures near or below zero. Here’s what you need to know about the polar vortex behind the deep freeze.

What is the polar vortex?

The frigid air will come from a brief visit by the polar vortex — which is a real meteorological phenomenon, not just a sensational headline. It’s a whirling mass of cold air circulating in the mid- to upper-levels of the atmosphere, present every winter.

It usually stays closer to the poles but sometimes breaks apart, sending chunks of Arctic air southward into the U.S. during winter.


This week’s particularly cold outbreak may be explained by the relative lack of cold air so far this winter in the eastern U.S. Instead of the cold air bleeding south a little at a time, it’s coming all at once.

How cold will it get?

The polar vortex will result in some shockingly cold temperatures this week. The National Weather Service in Chicago forecasts it will be the coldest Arctic outbreak in 25 years and perhaps since records have been kept.

Wednesday’s high temperature in Chicago is forecast to be 12 below zero. Low temperatures from 5 to 15 below zero are likely in Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Albany and Burlington with wind chills as low as 40 below Thursday morning.

The worst impacts will spread from the Upper Midwest Tuesday, through the Great Lakes Wednesday and into the Northeast by Thursday.

If there’s any saving grace to this current bitter blast, it’s that the mass of cold air won’t penetrate very far south, with the core staying over the northern third of the nation. Temperatures in central and South Florida will stay above 40 degrees.

How long will the cold last?

The cold blast won’t last very long. The coldest air will be in retreat by Friday. By Sunday temperatures will back in the 50s in parts of the Ohio Valley — feeling like 100 degrees warmer than this week’s lowest wind chills.

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Jeff Berardelli@WeatherProf

Try thinking warm thoughts… After the polar vortex passes, by Sunday, temperatures will be 75 degrees warmer in parts of the Ohio Valley and Midwest, feeling like 100 warmer!!

See Jeff Berardelli’s other Tweets

Is the polar vortex connected to climate change?

A counterintuitive theory about the polar vortex is gaining ground among some in the climate science community: Regional cold air outbreaks may be getting an “assist” from global warming. While it may not seem to make sense at first glance, scientifically it’s consistent with the extremes expected from climate change.

Overall, Earth is warming due to climate change, but areas near the North Pole are warming more than 2 times faster than the rest of the globe. This “Arctic Amplification” is especially pronounced in winter.

When warm air invades the Arctic Circle, it weakens the polar vortex, displacing cold air masses southward into Europe, Asia and the United States. You might think of it as a once tight-knit circulation unraveling, slinging pieces of cold air outward.

Evidence for this was presented in a research paper published in the Journal of the American Meteorological Society. Essentially, it suggests climate change can contribute to a more extreme, wavy jet stream, hurling cold air masses farther south.

It should be noted that this theory is relatively new and there is a lot of debate in the climate science community about the extent to which such a connection exists. CBS News reached out to two leading climate scientists for comment about whether or not a portion of the recent Arctic outbreaks can be traced to climate change. Here’s what they had to say:

Dr. Judah Cohen, a climate scientist at Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER), told us:

I have argued that low sea ice and extensive snow cover [in autumn] as a result of Arctic amplification have resulted in more frequent weakenings or disruptions of the polar vortex in recent decades.

When the polar vortex is weak or “perturbed,” the flow of air is weaker and meanders north and south (rather than west to east). This allows a redistribution of air masses where cold air from the Arctic spills into the mid-latitudes and warm air from the subtropics is carried into the Arctic.

Dr. Michael Mann, the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, said:

These questions test the limits of both our available data (the apparent increase in frequency of these events is quite recent and so at best only just starting to emerge from the background noise) and the model simulations.

As we showed in our recent Science article, current generation climate models don’t resolve some of the key processes involved in the jet stream dynamics behind many types of weather extremes.

Honest scientists can legitimately differ based on reasonable interpretations of the evidence to date.

In summary, most scientists involved with this kind of research are intrigued by the theory. It is a very active area of research. Generally, they agree that more study and improved climate models are needed to zero in on the causes and effects.

75% of the US will suffer below-freezing temps this week. But wait! There’s more …

(CNN)Absurdly cold weather is about to grip much of the US, trapping millions of Americans in sub-zero temperatures and bringing “dangerous to impossible travel conditions.”

Some states could suffer the coldest air in a generation, the National Weather Service said.

The coldest air will come between Tuesday and Thursday in the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes, with temperatures plunging to 20-40 degrees below zero, CNN meteorologist Dave Hennen said. Wind chills will plummet to 35-60 below zero.
“Chicago will likely see its coldest readings in nearly 25 years, with lows approaching the all-time record of 27 below and a daytime high on Wednesday of around 15 below,” Hennen said.
“It could remain below zero in Chicago from around noon on Tuesday until around midday on Friday.”
Across the Midwest and Great Lakes, the brutal cold will likely shatter dozens of records, Hennen said.
But the deep freeze is only half of the story. The Dakotas are grappling with blizzard conditions, the National Weather Service said. And heavier snow is expected in the Upper Midwest and Great lakes, meaning “dangerous to impossible travel conditions.”

While intense snow smothers much of the Midwest, snow will likely extend all the way down to Mississippi and Alabama.
In Atlanta, where thousands of football fans are getting ready for the Super Bowl, temperatures will plunge Tuesday as the city gets hit with up to two inches of snow.
All Georgia state offices will be closed Tuesday, Gov. Brian Kemp said.
Luckily, temperatures will rebound for the weekend, melting anything that sticks in time for the big game.