Polar vortex and its disruption- All you need to know

In the past few weeks, several parts of the world have been witnessing unusually extreme winter weather. It has been snowing in regions like the Texas state, Mexico, Mediterranean Greece, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Jordan, which haven’t seen snowfall in decades at this time of the year. Several regions experienced record low temperatures which disrupted the power grid, water supply lines and also businesses- especially at a time when the global economy is slowly staggering back to its legs. This unusual condition is being attributed to a phenomenon called the ‘polar vortex outbreak’.

 

Polar Vortex & its disruption upsc

 

What is the polar vortex?

  • The polar vortex is a permanent area of low pressure in the stratosphere surrounding the Poles.
  • It is an area of 1,000 km diameter around the North Pole and the South Pole.
  • It circulates in a counter-clockwise manner at an altitude of 11 to 15 km and stretches up to 60 to 80 km from the earth’s surface.
  • It is held in place by a circular band of winds called the polar jet stream or the circumpolar vortex at the polar front. The polar jet stream is considered the most important of jet streams.
  • This narrow band of winds flow in the troposphere at an altitude of 10 km from the earth’s surface.
  • These winds flow from west to east and are very strong, reaching speeds of up to 200 kmph.
  • Notably, these are the wind currents used by airplanes travelling eastwards to save fuel and time.
  • These jet streams shift seasonallyshrinking in the summers (i.e. northward shift at the North Pole) and expanding in the winters (i.e. southward shift at the North Pole). The polar vortex and the polar jet stream are generally stronger in the winter season.
  • This shifting of the polar jet stream is an annual occurrence and a normal part of the planet’s wind current system.

How do polar vortex outbreaks occur?

  • The polar jet streams are responsible for bottling up the cold polar air at the Poles. In the Northern Hemisphere, it is the boundary that separates the Arctic air from the warmer sub-tropical airs in the lower latitudes.
  • The polar jet stream is driven by the temperature difference between the sub-tropical area and the polar area. Whenever this temperature difference reduces, the jet stream winds weaken.
  • Weakening of the jet streams causes them to loose their rigid circular shape. These winds become wave like and meander. These waves are called ‘Arctic Oscillations’.
  • The Arctic Oscillations take cold air to the lower latitudes at the trough regions and warm air to the higher latitudes at the crest regions.
  • This is the reason why some of the upper latitudes are facing warmer conditions than usual and even rainfall while the lower latitudes are experiencing extremely cold conditions.
  • In some areas, even gaps develop in the wind band and cold air escapes to the south.
  • This is called the polar outbreak or polar vortex disruption.
  • The reduction in temperature difference is caused by a phenomenon called the ‘Sudden Stratospheric Warming’. This event causes the temperature of the upper atmospheric layers over the Arctic to increase by 30°C to 50°C in a matter of days.
  • This was recently observed over Siberia in early January. Such events disrupt the structure of the polar vortex in the stratosphere.
  • This structural disruption is also added to by the transfer of wave energy from the polar jet stream when it passes over pockets of warm air that act like ‘atmospheric bumper cars’.
  • Sometimes the sudden stratospheric warming is strong enough to split the polar vortex into ‘sister vortices’. The recent warming event caused the polar vortex to split into 2 vortices– one of which was unleashed towards the North American continent while the other affected Western Europe.

Most probable and repeated topics of upsc prelims

How is it linked to climate change?

  • Polar vortex outbreak as a direct result of climate change is a debated topic. The study of the polar vortex data hasn’t yielded a conclusive evidence yet to show that climate change is exacerbating sudden stratospheric warming.
  • The polar vortex outbreaks can also occur naturally. Such events have been occurring for ages.
  • But the major question is whether climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of polar vortex outbreaks like in case of other extreme events like droughts, cyclones and rainfalls.
  • Though there isn’t concrete evidence to prove the direct relation here either, scientists have highlighted the impact of climate change on various factors that contribute to polar vortex outbreaks.
  • The probability of sudden stratospheric warming events increases as global warming
  • Polar vortex also depends on the quantity and extent of sea ice. Here, the phenomenon of arctic amplification figures in. It is causing the Arctic region to warm up at a rate much faster than the rest of the world.
  • As more sea ice is lost, more heat from the sun gets absorbed by the Arctic waters (due to reduced albedo). When this heat is released back into the atmosphere, pockets of warm air gets created in the Arctic.
  • These bulges of warm air can strengthen the Arctic Oscillations and make them more persistent.

Why is it a source of concern?

  • The event brings in extremely low temperatures. Eg: the 2021 polar vortex outbreak has led to the UK recording its lowest February night temperature in 66 years. During the 2019 event, Chicago was colder than the North Pole. This disrupts the weather pattern.
  • This has major implications from disaster management standpoint. Extreme low temperatures can cause death due to hypothermia. Eg: the 2019 event claimed the lives of 21 people due to frostbites and hypothermia.
  • The low temperatures increases the demand for electricity and heating. During the 2018 cold snap, UK faced a severe shortage of natural gas.
  • Critical infrastructure like the natural gas pipelines and water supply lines could get damaged. At sub-zero temperature, water freezes up leading to water scarcity.
  • It severely impacts transportation (especially air travel), agriculture, businesses, schooling, etc. This comes at a time when the countries are already affected by the pandemic-driven lockdown and the subsequent economic shocks.
  • The wildlife has been affected by the cold temperatures too- especially the cold blooded animals like turtles that are dependent on the environmental heat to sustain their body temperature. During such cold snaps, they go into a shock, rendering them vulnerable to various dangers. Recently, over 2,000 sea turtles were rescued by volunteers at the South Padre Island in Texas.
  • Though these turtles are being housed in conservation facilities and rescue centres, the lack of power supply has affected their ability to preserve their lives.
  • There is a concern that the disruption of polar vortex has become more frequent.
  • The average temperatures over the years have been on a rising trend. 2020 tied with 2016 as one of the hottest years in recorded history. 2020 also marked the end of the hottest decade.
  • The high temperatures have had their impact on sea ice cover. The sea ice in the Arctic has been at a record low– especially in the Barents Sea area in northwest Russia.

What is the way ahead?

To understand how the impact of polar vortex outbreaks can be tackled, its useful to consider the case of Texas and why the southern US state suffered disproportionate damages:

Texas case study:

  • The state experienced temperatures as low as -16°C and even suffered the onslaught of the winter storm Uri.
  • The cold temperatures had claimed the lives of 30 people– mostly due to hypothermia (when the houses failed to keep its inhabitants warm) but some due to carbon monoxide poisoning (the toxic gas is released from the heaters in enclosed cars where people sought shelter from the extreme cold).
  • The state faced a major power shutdown leading to more than 4 million people left without electricity at such a critical period. Many didn’t get the power back on for over 5 days.
  • During this period, the water pipes froze and many resorted to melting ice to meet their drinking water
  • The federal government approved a major disaster declaration in the state to aid it’s recovery with some financial stimulus. The US Environmental Protection Agency approved an emergency fuel waiver to address its fuel shortages.

Reason:

  • Texas is a southern state and it usually experience fairly warm temperatures at this time of the year and yet, none of the other states faced as much damage as Texas.
  • The impact of the event almost caused the power grid in Texas to collapse into a month-long failure. Meanwhile, none of the other US states faced a major power loss.
  • In the USA, electricity is supplied from various sources- nuclear power plants, natural gas plants, wind farms, etc. These plants are mainly run by private energy companies.
  • These companies work with local power utilities to direct power into the grids that serve various areas. The power utility is supervised by a government commission. This commission sets the prices and safety standards.
  • These power grids were put in place about a century ago and they cover large areas of the country. Eg: a single grid covers the entire East Coast of the USA.
  • These grids enable the transfer of electricity between the states and helps address demand-supply gaps in case of emergencies. Eg: the recent cold snap had also hit the state of Oklahoma but it didn’t face a major power cut as it received power from the neighboring states.
  • In Texas’ case, the state government chose to stay out of the national grid to keep out of reach of the federal government’s attempts at regulations. Texas maintains its own grid so that it could have more liberties with regards to aspects like cost standards.
  • Texas has diverse power sources but the storm had hit every one of them- the coal piles at the thermal power plants had frozen up, one of its nuclear power plants went offline, several of the wind turbines stopped working and most importantly, the water vapor in the natural gas caused it to freeze in the pipelines and storage wells.
  • However, the reason for the disproportionate damage is the ill preparedness of the energy companies rather than technology specific issues. Advances in technology has enabled energy systems to operate even in cold temperatures. Eg: wind turbines are operating in Antarctica and gas plants are operating in Alaska.
  • The ill preparedness is especially noteworthy as such cold snaps and the subsequent damage to critical infrastructure has been occurring in Texas since 1989. The 1989 December storm had damaged its natural gas system. This again happened in 2011.
  • Both these times, the federal government had urged the state government to create ‘winterization standards’ for facilities dealing with production and processing of natural gas to ensure power reliability.
  • The state utility commission did roll out such standards but had made them voluntary.
  • Most of the companies had opted out of the regime as private companies don’t have an incentive to spend money preparing for such an infrequent unpredictable event.

What can be done?

  • The polar vortex outbreak and sudden stratospheric warming are still not understood completely. There is a need to invest in research to develop better understanding of these phenomena.
  • There is an urgent need to upgrade the older infrastructure that have critical functions.
  • Such events are a wake up call for countries around the world to formulate ways to safeguard their energy infrastructure and other critical infrastructure from extreme climate events in general.
  • In this aspect, the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure is a step in the right direction. The CDRI is a partnership of governments, UN agencies, multilateral development banks, private sector and academic institutions that was set up based on India’s proposal.

  • With regards to framing disaster management plans, there is a need to factor in scenarios of simultaneous occurrence of multiple calamities and occurrence of less likely but unpredictable extreme weather events.
  • There is a need to address misinformation to prevent lax attitude from the public and policy makers. Eg: misinformation that polar vortex disruption “disproves global warming”.
  • Need to take measures to protect wildlife- especially the reptilian species and other endangered species. Sufficient number of conservation centres can be established in regions vulnerable to cold snaps.
  • Volunteers can be roped in to speed up rescue efforts but this must be done after ensuring their safety.

Conclusion

The recent polar vortex disruption has come at an especially inopportune moment when the world has been battling the pandemic for over an year now. Such co-occurrence of natural disasters are quickly becoming the new normal. Scientific research is required for clearer understanding of such events which would in turn help the world prepare better. This is also an opportune moment for multilateral initiatives like CDRI to gain currency.

Practice question for mains

What is a polar vortex outbreak? Discuss its impact on power infrastructure in the upper latitudes. (250 words)

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