Polar Vortex, California Drought, Alaskan Heat Wave, Climate Change: What’s With the Weird Weather?

November 16, 2015 Print Friendly and PDF

Winter Storm

Will “polar vortex” top the charts as 2014’s Word of the Year? 

Most Americans had probably never heard the term for the strong, frigid winds that normally circulate counterclockwise high in the atmosphere over Earth’s polar regions.

But this winter, a weakened and distorted Arctic vortex whirled its way south, engulfing the U.S. in a gripping cold that stretched from Montana to Maine and as far south as Florida.

At one point, 26 states were under wind-chill warnings, including Florida. Some northern states went for days with temperatures rarely moving above zero. Wind-chill temperatures as low as -70, blowing winds, and drifting snow closed schools in Minnesota for days on end, while storms in southern states caused massive highway pileups, stranded thousands of cars on highways, and kept thousands of school children overnight in their schools. 

Thousands of airline flights were cancelled; millions of homes and businesses suffered power outages. At least 13 states reported record daily low temperatures in January.

As the winter ground on, reporters struggled to find enough strong words: Epic, massive, catastrophic, devastating, cataclysmic, apocalyptic storms (temperatures, winds) gripped (slammed, hammered, paralyzed, crippled, and stunned). By mid-February, even the U.S. Weather Service had gotten into into creative wordsmithing, describing the new storm bearing down on the Southeast as “mind-boggling if not historical.”

For 37 years, Dr. Mark Seeley has served as University of Minnesota extension climatologist/meteorologist, coordinating weather and climate educational programs with the National Weather Service, the Minnesota State Climatology Office, and various state agencies.

“The polar vortex has been defined and studied by scientists for 150 years as part of the upper atmospheric structure,” he says. “It’s measurable and observable by satellite. It typically resides between 70 and 80 degrees north latitude. [The contiguous U.S. lies within 24 to 49 degrees north latitude.]  

The vortex weakens and descends every 10-15 years, Seeley says, adding that widespread distortions extending across most of the U.S. have also happened before, notably in 1996, 1936, and 1899.

What caused the distortion this year? 

“There’s no simple explanation,” Seeley says. “It’ll be a while--maybe years--before this winter’s weather pattern has been studied enough to say.”

However, he adds, “I don’t think the extreme weather throughout the midwest, northeast and south is all attributable to the displacement of the vortex. There are probably many factors in play.”

One thing Seeley states unequivocally: “Climate-change skeptics have latched onto [the brutal and enduring winter cold] as confirmation that the climate isn’t warming. But in the broader picture, climate change and global warming goes on pretty much unabated.”

In fact, these charts from cities all over the U.S. show a trend of steadily warmer winters over the past four decades. 

“We know that 2013 was the 37th consecutive year that the global mean temperature was higher than the average for the 20th century,” says Seeley. “California has just passed through the driest 12 months in its history. The multi-year drought there won’t be cured by one wet month.”

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported in late January that while weather stations in the lower 48 registered more than 2,600 records for cold, stations in Alaska reported more than 20 broken or tied records for high temperatures. The weeks-long Alaskan heat wave canceled dogsled races, closed ski areas, and confused many usually dormant trees and shrubs into budding.  

NIFA grants focus on climate change, climate variability, adaptation, and sustainability for farmers and forest landowners

In 2011, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awarded three five-year, $20-million grants to “measure the effects of climate change on agriculture, develop effective methods to sustain productivity in a changing environment and pass these resources on to the farmers and industry professionals who can put the research into practice.” 

Altogether, the three complex projects incorporate researchers, extension staff, and graduate students in more than two dozen land-grant and historically black universities, partnering with farmers and private landowners, state and federal agencies, regional non-profits, and industry.

All three projects envision extension field staff playing a critical role as communicators, bringing the results of locally applicable research to farmers, forest landowners, and the general public.

  • Climate and Corn-based Cropping Systems Coordinated Agricultural Project (CSCAP, better known as Sustainable Corn) is headquartered at Iowa State University. The project involves 10 land-grant institutions and one USDA research site in the midwestern corn and soybean belt, as well as 160 specialists in fields as diverse as economics, meteorology, agronomy, and the social sciences. The group will collect data from 35 field sites and thousands of farmers in the nine participating midwestern states. The aim: to increase resilience and adaptability of midwest agriculture to increasingly volatile weather patterns by identifying farmer practices and policies that improve sustainability while meeting crop demand.
  • Pine Integrated Network: Education, Mitigation, and Adaptation Project (PINEMAP), headquartered at the University of Florida, focuses on the 20 million acres of planted pine forests managed by private landowners in the Atlantic and Gulf coastal states, plus Arkansas and Oklahoma. These forests contain a third of the contiguous U.S. forest carbon and form the backbone of an industry that supplies 16 percent of global industrial wood. PINEMAP integrates research, extension, and education to enable southern pine landowners to manage forests to increase carbon sequestration; increase efficiency of nitrogen and other fertilizer inputs, and adapt forest management approaches to increase forest resilience and sustainability under variable climates.
  •  Regional Approaches to Climate Change in Pacific Northwest Agriculture (REACCH PAN) involves scientists, extension personnel, and students from land-grant universities in Idaho, Washington and Oregon, and the USDA Agricultural Research Service. Connecting with wheat and barley farmers, and using innovative methods, the project aims to ensure that agriculture and grain production will endure through future climate change.

Understanding underlying perceptions

Chad Ingels, an extension program specialist with Iowa State University, leads the extension team for Sustainable Corn. 

A full-time farmer for 10 years before coming to Iowa Extension 15 years ago, Ingels says the project aims to “develop and pass along to farmers a suite of practices intended to build greater resilience with regard to crop production in the face of weather and climate-related changes.”

After three years, the project “has amassed a tremendous dataset and a rich communications network. We’ve found a need for research and information tailored to the differing needs of specific local areas within the nine states.

Ingels acknowledges that at the outset, some extension staff expressed skepticism about climate-change science or felt reluctant to bring it up among their farmer clientele, “concerned about how farmers would receive messages about climate change.”

Farmers mirror the perceptions of climate change we see in the general population,” Ingels says. “They tend to to focus more on the weather predictions for that particular season than on long-range concerns over climate change. But many are beginning to acknowledge that they’re seeing more climate variability and more extreme weather events.

“A big aim of the project involves building capacity within the extension team, providing them with locally applicable information to increase their confidence in talking about climate issues with farmers.”

All three NIFA-funded projects incorporate a strong focus on understanding the current beliefs and perceptions of climate issues--not just among farmers and forest landowners, but also among the extension professionals who work with them.

Martha Monroe, an extension specialist and professor of environmental education involved in the PINEMAP project, has surveyed extension professionals to explore their perceptions of climate change.

“Our Six Americas of Climate Change: Perceptions of Southeast Extension Professionals survey revealed that the attitude and beliefs of extension professionals in the southeast mirror those of the general U.S. public,” says Monroe.

“It’s important to remember that like the general population, extension professionals are not all on board with the concept of human-caused climate change,” she says.

“In some places extension ‘climate advocates’ are leading the charge, delivering useful information about Earth’s changing climate and ways people can can mitigate and adapt to it.  Other Extension faculty are confused by the multiple and complex messages; they “want and need information” that’s directly applicable to their local area. Finally, many of the extension skeptics and deniers are nonetheless aware of climate variability and an increase in extreme weather events,” she says. 

PINEMAP researchers asked extension professionals to rate 10 potential limitations to their ability to conduct climate change programs. “Personal beliefs appear to have relatively little impact” on their willingness to conduct climate-change programming,” she says. “The interesting thing is that across all [climate-change] perspectives, lack of audience interest and lack of applied information were at the top of the list.”

“Our research shows that extension agents not only know their clientele, but they trust their own specialists and the scientists within their land-grant universities. But they want applied research and information that’s directly applicable to their local area.”

“We don't need to convert climate deniers into climate advocates to do a good job helping people become resilient,” Monroe says. “We can focus on the science of climate variability and extreme weather events and say, ‘Here’s what you need to do to adapt to changing conditions.’” 

University of Minnesota meteorologist Mark Seeley agrees. “Cooperative Extension professionals are supposed to use scientific research and measurable data, and the data are absolutely convincing that the climate is changing. 

“Extension has a 100-year legacy of serving the public with science-based information gathered from research, data, and analysis. We’ve improved the quality of people’s lives their livelihoods, and their communities.” 

And with this rich legacy, Seeley asks, “Why would we take climate data and distort it to serve any other purpose?”


​Released February 14, 2014

Photo credit: William Brawley. Some rights reserved. 

Writer: Peg Boyles, eXtension, writangl@gmail.com

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.