After months of experiencing record-breaking warm temperatures, the United States is bracing itself for an abrupt shift as frigid air from the Arctic is poised to sweep through the nation. This chilling phenomenon, expected to bring wind chill factors below zero degrees Fahrenheit (–18 degrees Celsius), comes hot on the heels of a significant winter storm that recently blanketed the Midwest and Great Lakes regions with snow.

An Arctic Outbreak

Judah Cohen, a climate scientist at Verisk Atmospheric and Environmental Research, anticipates that this Arctic blast will be big. “It will be a very impressive – certainly one of the most impressive Arctic outbreaks of this century anyway,” says Judah Cohen, as per Scientific American. He draws parallels to recent events, such as the severe cold snap in Texas in February 2021 and a pre-holiday freeze in December 2022.

Kristina Dahl, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, provides some reassurance by highlighting that the upcoming Arctic blast is not expected to be as deadly as the Texas event. Improved infrastructure and upgrades in recent years are anticipated to reduce the strain on the power grid during this cold spell. Nevertheless, it remains crucial for individuals to stay informed and prepared for potential risks.

The Science Behind It

In order to understand the dynamics behind the sudden drop in temperatures across a broad expanse of North America, it’s essential to delve into the science behind the Arctic blast.

Typically, the very cold air in the Arctic is contained within a high-altitude swirl of winds known as the polar vortex. This vortex is surrounded by a lower-altitude band called the polar jet stream. Disruptions in the polar vortex can lead to a wavy jet stream, allowing frigid air to extend much farther south than usual, resulting in an Arctic blast. The outcome may vary, with some instances bringing snow and ice, while others manifest as dry but bitterly cold conditions.

Scientists are still researching the causes of these disruptions, and there is ongoing debate within the scientific community. As per climate scientist Kristina Dahl: “It’s a very active area of research and something that scientists are passionately debating and trying to figure out at the moment. It’s definitely not settled science.”

Climate Change’s Role 

While the precise causes are still being explored, many experts believe that climate change likely plays a role in the disruption of the polar vortex. Cohen believes that climate change in the Arctic directly influences the polar vortex, citing this winter’s melting sea ice near Scandinavia and high snowfall near Siberia as contributors. This thermal contrast, he argues, sets the stage for a wavy polar jet stream, paving the way for Arctic blasts.

Cohen highlights the counterintuitive seeming nature of a warmer planet increasing the likelihood of severe winter weather events. “It seems very counterintuitive and surprising that a warmer planet can actually increase your odds of experiencing severe winter weather events—but that’s what our research has shown,” Cohen explains.

Looking Ahead

Cohen predicts a second, less severe Arctic blast later this month, with the possibility of this phenomenon repeating into February. Seeing these continued extreme cold spells alongside the confirmation of 2023 as the hottest year on record raises questions about the impacts of climate change on weather patterns.

“I like to think of these polar jet stream outbreaks as ‘global weirding,’” Dahl concludes. “Climate change is causing all sorts of different impacts, and some of them are counterintuitive.”