Photo | Courtesy of NASA
Have you seen headlines recently with catchy phrases like “horizontal hurricane” or “atmospheric river?” Those were about moisture that streams into the west coast of the U.S. and creates flooding similar to that of a hurricane. They’ve been more common this winter than a few years ago when “polar vortex” was in the headline.
What about a polar vortex bomb cyclone? Is that a thing? Yes and no. It is a thing that gets your attention. It is not a new thing. It is actually two different things. I will bet that one day you’ll hear it all as one, simply because it sounds bizarre. These are words meteorologists have used for decades, and in some cases, centuries. All professions have jargon that would make you say, “Huh? What’s that?!” and it’s often jargon that’s better left within the profession.
A cyclone is any low-pressure storm system that spins. “Cyclone” has different meanings around the world. You hear it applied to tropical storms, hurricanes, tornadoes and winter storms. Even the roller coaster at Coney Island is called Cyclone, but that’s a little different.
A vortex is just what it is called. It’s something that spins too. With tornadoes, you hear “multiple vortex.” That’s when one large tornado has tiny ones spinning around it, or when several small tornadoes from one thunderstorm all spin around a common center.
“Polar vortex” may sound like the stage name of a stripper, but it is just air that circulates around the pole. More correctly, it is a wind at high levels of the atmosphere, like the jetstream, that encircles the planet near the poles. It acts as the boundary for arctic air. We don’t feel the polar vortex at the ground, but as it meanders really far south, we feel the frigid air it allows to enter the U.S. And when that air arrives, it’s not always windy. It’s what used to just be called an arctic outbreak.
What about “bomb cyclone”? That’s pretty much a winter storm. The “bomb” in front of “cyclone” is used by a meteorologist for a winter storm that rapidly loses pressure — at least one millibar per hour, for 24 hours. A regular cyclone or winter storm can be stronger, with larger impact, but bomb cyclone just sounds cool, doesn’t it? The “bomb” designation just means it strengthens very fast. A bomb cyclone is nothing new.
What about “nor’easter”? That is a cyclone. It could be a bomb cyclone. A nor’easter is a winter storm that moves up the eastern seaboard of the U.S. As it moves through New England, the winds blow back toward the coast from the northeast. That’s where it gets its name.
While social media is great at making up and perpetuating words and phrases, traditional media is good at latching onto professional jargon when it makes a unique headline. Even if the words are new to you, the science of an atmospheric river, bomb cyclone, polar vortex, nor’easter and blizzard are even older than halitosis and flatulence.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).