For many of us, the term “polar vortex” first came onto our radar in 2019. It caused extremely cold temperatures, mainly in Midwestern states, which resulted in dozens of deaths. In this post, we will explain why you should expect to hear “polar vortex” more in the future, despite a warming globe, and how to prepare for it.

Cold family of 4 crowded for warmth next to window. Polar vortex forecasts allow time to prepare.

What is a Polar Vortex?

Before we explain how to prepare for the polar vortex, let’s first discuss what it is. Here are a few polar vortex facts from National Weather Service:

Polar Vortext Facts

  • Polar vortices have always been over Earth’s poles
  • The jet stream keeps the polar vortex in place
  • Temperatures drop in specific regions as opposed to entire northern hemisphere
  • Warming poles due to climate change mean more frequent polar vortices
  • Many Americans are not prepared for polar vortex conditions today

The polar vortex is a large area of cold air located above the Earth’s poles. The jet stream, which is a band of quickly moving air at the edge of the polar vortex, keeps the polar vortex from coming far south often. The temperature difference between the poles and the middle areas of the globe are what keeps the jet stream moving quickly. 

When temperatures between the poles and the middle regions approach one another, the jet stream slows down and begins to make a wavy pattern. This is different from its regular smooth, circular line. This wavy pattern creates high peaks and deep valleys, which is what allows the frigid Arctic air to sometimes come south well into the US.

Snow-covered Boston street: Polar vortices are harder to prepare for in warmer areas. Start now.

Polar Vortex Forecast

National Geographic explains that with the Earth’s poles warming more quickly than its middle regions, we should expect to see temperatures on either side of the jet stream approach one another more often. In turn, we should expect to see the polar vortex dipping south more often. So while a warming earth means milder winters, and less extreme temperatures in the polar vortices, those temperatures are still plenty cold enough to cause serious harm to property and living beings. 

Once the jet stream is weakened and cold air is able to move further south, it can take weeks for that air to reach parts of the US, so there will be time to prepare for the next one.

Stormy, gray sky in winter. Prepare for polar vortices when forecast says it’s on the way.

How to Prepare Your Home & Family for the Polar Vortex

While you will have time to prepare for the next polar vortex, it’s good to make a plan now. Here are a few things to keep in mind to make sure you’re prepared for the polar vortex:

1. Keep Warm – Physical safety is the most important factor. Make sure you have plenty of clothing and blankets. Polar vortices produce extreme temperatures that can easily affect power grids and your home. Check out our Winter Home Maintenance Guide to make sure you are preparing your home to keep your family as warm as possible in the event of a winter power outage. 

Indow inserts add a second layer in your window frames to help keep warm air inside during winter.

Frozen busted pipe. Consider how to keep your home’s pipes safe when preparing for the polar vortex.

2. Consider Hygiene – If there is a power outage, you might be left without running water. Make sure you are well stocked on water to drink and wash yourselves with. Clean hands are important for preventing illness.

3. Stock Up on Food & Water – Make sure you have plenty of healthy, nonperishable food. In case there is a power outage, have plenty of food that does not need to be cooked before eating. Even without a power outage, restaurants and stores might be closed.

4. Keep the Outside Clear – As much as possible, keep your sidewalks, driveway, and car clear of snow and ice. In case of emergency, you will want to have quick, easy access to your car. Be sure to run it every once in a while. 

This step should be avoided in extreme temperatures. Even a few minutes in extremely cold temperatures can be dangerous to your health. 

5. Watch Out for Gas & Portable Heaters Indoors – These can be lifesaving items during a major winter storm, but it is important that they never be left running unattended, or for too long. Turn your heaters off and unplug them if you leave the room or are going to bed.

Woman huddled next to the radiator with hot tea. Prepare for power outages during the polar vortex.

Be a Good Citizen & Neighbor

We caution you to prepare your home for extreme weather events because exposure to the elements can cause serious health problems and even death. Once your home and family are prepared for the polar vortex, prepare to help others in your community. 

Donating extra clothing items and blankets to shelters is a great way to help those in need stay warm. If you live in Portland, Oregon, refer to this list of donation sites. Searching “donate clothes and blankets + your city” in Google will allow you to find similar resources. 

If you see someone outside in extreme weather events, dialing 211 to get connected with people that can help might save a life.