Every year or two, the Northern Hemisphere gets treated to a bout of intensely cold temperatures thanks to the polar vortex. What you may not realize, though, is that it’s not the polar vortex that causes this cold weather – it’s the vortex breaking down. As Simon Clark explains in this video, the polar vortices (one at each pole) are intense and powerful regions of circulation in the stratosphere, or mid-atmosphere. They’re largely responsible for keeping cold air trapped in the Arctic and Antarctic. But occasionally, this region of the atmosphere will suddenly get warmer – to the tune of increasing by 80 degrees Celsius in less than a week! When this happens, a polar vortex will deform and potentially even split into smaller vortices, as seen below. When this happens, the vortex loses its hold on the cold air near the surface, allowing Arctic air to sneak as far south as Texas. After a couple of weeks of affecting our weather, the polar vortex will typically reform and we’ll return to normal.

What is a polar vortex?: