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Living on the Edge of the Polar Vortex

Bill Meredith

"Whether you understand it or not,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be."
Max Ehrmann, 1927, "Desiderata."

(February, 2014) I had an interesting conversation the other day with my friend, Shane. He is three years old, and we were taking about the snow that had just fallen. He knows there is a place called the North Pole; he’s not quite sure where it is, but he knows Santa lives there, and it’s cold and snowy. He knows there are polar bears that hibernate; the people who live there are called Eskimos, and they live in snow houses called igloos and travel by dog sleds. Shane is curious, and to him everything is interesting; he notices everything around him, and remembers. Also, he gets information from his parents, who read to him, and from television. At that age his brain is like a sponge, soaking up facts from all kinds of places and storing them until the time comes to combine them with other information that, at the time, might seem unrelated.

When I was that age I also was curious. We didn’t have television, so I got my information from watching and poking at things, from being read to, and from listening to grownups. So I spent the first 22 years of my life learning what the world is made of and how it works, and when I graduated from college I really thought I knew a lot. But in the six decades since then, I have found that all of the rules I had learned have exceptions, and that many of the facts I had learned were oversimplified or just plain wrong. One of the best examples of this is the weather.

My sister, who was nine years older than I, was already in high school by the time I was Shane’s age, and she brought home all sorts of strange and fascinating ideas. In those days she washed her hair in the kitchen sink, and one day she told me when the sink drained, the water would make a whirlpool that would spin clockwise. I watched, and sure enough, it did. I immediately asked why, but she didn’t seem to be sure; the best answer she could give was because her science teacher said it would. That wasn’t a very satisfactory explanation, ever for a pre-schooler, and my confusion was compounded because it didn’t always work. It would be another 15 years before I learned that the whirlpool was caused by the Coriolis force, which is produced by the rotation of the earth and causes a general tendency for moving fluids to turn to their right in the Northern Hemisphere. It was several more years before I could grasp why low pressure systems like hurricanes turn counterclockwise. Still later, I learned that the funnel-shaped area at the center of those spinning masses of air or water was called a vortex.

All of these facts floated around loose inside my head until I began to study ecology in the mid-1950s. When I entered graduate school I found that I needed to understand all aspects of the environment, and weather was one of the things I knew the least about. It had been studied for centuries, and could be measured accurately on a local scale; but knowledge of how it worked or predicting it was not yet possible because so many of the causative forces acted high in the atmosphere, and there was no way to get up there and measure them. Russian and Norwegian scientists had discovered polar vortices as early as 1853, and two Norwegians, Vilhelm Bjerknes and his son, Jakob, had developed a theory to explain how polar fronts work in the 1920s, but there was no way to test their theory. But then, in 1957, the Russian satellite, Sputnik, was launched, and the Space Age started. Within three years it became possible to take measurements of all kinds at all levels of the atmosphere and on into space beyond. The wandering facts in my head began coming together, as they did for scientists in many fields all over the world.

In 1933… coincidentally, the year I was born… Jakob Bjerknes came to the U. S. to teach at MIT. In 1940, just before the war started, he moved to California and founded the Department of Meteorology at UCLA. It was a propitious time for him; knowledge of weather was needed for the war effort, and after that, for strategic use in the Cold War, so money for research was readily available. He studied ocean currents and developed a theory to explain how the El Nino currents in the Pacific Ocean affect climate in North America. One of his theories predicted that, as global warming increased, La Nina currents (which alternate with El Nino) would cause melting of polar ice, which would result in warming of the high atmosphere and cause the polar vortex to become more active. That theory had not yet been confirmed when he died in 1978; but, as everyone who watches the Weather Channel knows, it is now accepted as the main reason for the severe weather we have had for the past month.

So now, each morning as I sit at the breakfast table with a cup of coffee and a Suduko puzzle before me, I think of Dr. Bjerknes. Because of him and many others like him, I have a reasonably good understanding of the environment I see through my window. Of course, the birds and squirrels out there do not understand it; but they don’t need to. Evolution has equipped them with instincts to do what they must do to survive: find food wherever they can, keep dry and stay out of the wind as much as possible, and wait. The storm at the end of December brought heavy, wet snow, and I saw several birds with damaged body parts as a result… feet crippled by frostbite, and tail feathers missing because they froze fast to the limbs where the birds roosted at night. They were not doing well; when the Cooper’s hawk surveyed the flock from his perch in the sycamore across the street, he was sure to notice. He has to survive too.

Winter started a month ago, and since then we have faced Lake Effect Storms, Alberta Clippers, and Polar Vortices. Old Jakob Bjerknes, wherever he may be, must be shaking his head and wondering whether to weep or chuckle as a series of earnest TV weather persons frantically recite cute names for each frontal system that wends its way across the country and show pictures of snowball fights and traffic pileups in Atlanta. But birds and squirrels care nothing of that; what they know is that the time from sunrise to sunset has increased by 18 minutes… nearly a third of an hour… since December 21, and that is enough to be noticed by biological clocks. Yesterday I saw a goldfinch that already has a few yellow feathers. Male cardinals are starting to offer sunflower seeds to their mates instead of chasing them away from the feeder. Male squirrels are waving their tails amorously and chasing the females with a dreamy expression on their faces. As for me as I watch all of that, it is warm inside the house, and I’m at peace. No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith