OK, so what exactly is a “polar vortex”? How many of you have asked that same question? I know enough people also wondered, so much so, that it popped up on my computer search engine pretty quickly.

Because a polar vortex affected our Central Texas weather for the second time this winter, I thought I would do some research on what I learned is a new name for an old weather pattern.

“Think of it as a polar hurricane,” said NBC news’ TV weatherman Al Roker of a polar vortex. Being from the Texas Gulf Coast area, that makes some sense to me. But let’s define it a little more specifically.

Normally occurring over both the North and South Poles is an enormous counterclockwise-spinning mass of extremely cold air. It also hovers over the northeastern part of Canada. Recently, as we all felt, it dipped southward over the U.S. and caused temperatures to plummet lower than usual. Its new name — polar vortex.

Frank Giannasca, senior meteorologist with The Weather Channel, attributes the reason for the polar vortex affecting us to warmer-than-usual air masses to the north that are bumping against and forcing the frigid air mass downward.

The name polar vortex may sound new and exciting, but this phenomenon has happened longer than weather has been recorded. It may only happen every one to two decades, however. It did occur as recently as the 1990s. It gives us some real insight into the typical climate of places we will seldom or never experience in our lifetimes — the poles.

The most dangerous part of experiencing these polar vortexes is the fact that we aren’t accustomed to the extreme temperatures and wind-chills that accompany them.

In northern states, if proper precautions aren’t taken, human skin can freeze in as little as five minutes.

But even in Central Texas, we must take extra precautions to protect our water pipes, plants, pets, vehicles, as well as dress ourselves appropriately before going out in the polar vortex’s freezing temperatures.

Darla Horner Menking is a Texas Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at darla.menking@gmail.com

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