January 26, 2019 3 min read

Polar Vortex 2019: What it is and how you can stay safe.

by Becca Stewart

This week, arctic air will blast much of the country. Changes in the polar vortex will bring frigid temperatures, causing record-breaking cold in the Midwest and the Northeastern United States.

The Weather Channel predicts wind chills of more than -40°F from the Dakotas to the Great Lakes. Temperatures will be well below average throughout the Central and Southern U.S., exposing millions to dangerously cold conditions.

Here’s what you need to know about the polar vortex, what’s causing the outbreak in arctic air, and what you can do to stay safe.


What is a polar vortex?

The polar vortex refers to a large mass of swirling air that sits above the Arctic. It’s always there, but typically it stays in a tight coil, centered above the north pole. The polar jet stream acts as a barrier between the frigid arctic air and the subtropical jet stream that pushes up from the south.

Occasionally, the polar vortex widens, and the jet stream dips southward, bringing with it arctic air, snow, wind, and dangerous conditions.

Over the next week, the polar jet stream and the polar vortex will dip into parts of Canada and the northern U.S., causing widespread record-breaking cold temperatures.

 polar vortex 2019 arctic air

Who will be affected?

The polar vortex’s arctic blast will affect tens of millions of Americans across much of the eastern half of the United States. The coldest air is expected to blanket the Midwest, including the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Residents in Pennsylvania and New York will also be affected, as well as those in parts of Missouri, eastern Nebraska, and West Virginia.

The polar vortex’s journey southward will push warmer, subtropical air out of much of the U.S., bringing well-below average temperatures to most of the Central, Southern, and Eastern United States. Cold air is expected as far south as Florida’s panhandle.

 polar vortex 2019 temperatures and areas affected

(image credit: weatherchannel.com)

How to stay safe

Sub-zero temperatures affect many parts of daily life. Districts across the Midwest have already canceled school, citing safety concerns for students who walk to school or wait outside for transportation. Affected areas will see an uptick in broken pipes, flooding, and potential house fires from portable heating units. Roads will be slick and dangerous. Flights may be canceled or delayed.

Of course, the most vulnerable populations – seniors, small children, the disabled, and the homeless – face particular challenges. Just a few minutes outside without proper gear in -40°F temperatures can cause frostbite and hypothermia, both potentially life-threatening conditions.

If you’re in one of the areas affected by the polar vortex, it’s important to take the following precautions to keep yourself and those around you safe:

  • Be sure you have the proper winter weather clothing. If you’re venturing outside for any amount of time, you’re going to be at risk of hypothermia and frostbite. Make sure you have adequate clothing that covers all exposed skin: warm winter jackets, winter gloves, hats, wind-resistant pants, and thick socks and boots. If you will be outside for an extended period of time, we’ve got you covered with our Anseris heated coats, gloves, underlayers, and boots.
  • Prevent frozen pipes. Leave cabinets open, turn faucets to drip, and unhook all hoses. Broken pipes can lead to costly repairs. This week’s record-breaking low temperatures will cause pipes to freeze, so take proper precautions and avoid the headache.
  • Plan ahead, and stay home. Stock up on groceries and other necessities now, before the polar air arrives. That way, you can avoid dangerous driving conditions.
  • Have an alternate heat source. As temperatures drop, your heating system will struggle to keep up. Many furnaces fail during prolonged periods of arctic temperatures. It’s wise to have a back-up source of power just in case your furnace fails. However, use portable heaters with extreme caution. Discover more tips here for using a space heater safely.
  • Check on vulnerable adults regularly. Elderly adults who live alone and those with disabilities are especially vulnerable during outbreaks of winter weather. Be sure to check in on those who might be in need of help during this week’s cold weather snap.

Stay safe this week, and take care of one another. Remember to bundle up if you’re headed outside, and travel with caution.

Want to learn more about the polar vortex, how it works, and what happens when its Jetstream changes? Check out this National Geographic video!


Becca is a freelance writer, Colorado native, and outdoor enthusiast. You can learn more about her at writebecca.com.


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