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Penkava: The revenge of the Polar Vortex

Published: Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 11:37 p.m. CST

Lately, have you had the feeling that you might be living in some kind of climate disaster movie?  

I mean, at this point we may be simply portraying an unsuspecting populace as we try to move through our daily lives coping with what we think are simply glitches on the Doppler radar. But, little do we know, we may be actually experiencing the precursors to some kind of global environmental catastrophe.

Yep, as we hole up in our homes to wait out record-setting subzero temperatures, maybe there’s something else going on. Maybe those blasts of heavily chilled mesospheric air have their source in some solar super prominence that is now silently ripping a hole in the ozone layer.

Or, as we dutifully shovel inch after inch of snow from our driveways, perhaps there’s some unperceived polar shift that is covertly issuing in a new Ice Age. Not to mention the possibility that the North Atlantic current is making a subtle, undetected right-hand turn to cause the ice cap to melt, issuing in massive super-frigid hurricanes that have their eyes clearly focused on us. Yep, something like that.

Sure, you’re thinking I’m crazy. We’re not living in a disaster movie. Sure, stuff is happening out there, but there’s nothing to worry about. Well, I’m sorry to tell you, but that’s exactly what everybody was thinking in those disaster movies right before they all turned to ice.

The reality of the situation is that there really is something called the “Polar Vortex,” also called the “Polar Cyclone” and the “Circumpolar Whirl.” The first name actually sounds a bit ominous; the last two could be rides at Great America. But whatever you call it, it’s real.

Did you know that the Polar Vortex is actually a large-scale cyclone of frigid air near the poles of this planet? It’s located in the troposphere and stratosphere. I don’t know if you know this, but those are real scientific places.

And did you know that sudden stratospheric events and oceanic oscillation anomalies can be linked to the Polar Vortex? I checked this out and also discovered that interactions between Arctic Sea ice decline, reduced snow cover and evapotranspiration patterns are affecting the jet stream configuration.

Not to get you too panicky, but the nitric acid in polar stratospheric clouds is currently reacting with chlorofluorocarbons, which forms chlorine. And the next thing you know we’re looking at the photochemical destruction of ozone.

Or at the very least, we’ll see Rossby waves propagating farther into the north. And then the high-pressure system in Greenland succumbs to axis interruption … the extratropical cyclone occludes and migrates … cold-core lows increase … the Polar Vortex breaks down … and then … trisssrrrreeekkk … nothing but static on the old transistor radio, baby.

Oh, I know you’re still thinking I’m wacky. Just some humor columnist who’s a little top heavy on the meteorological skills. Sure, I’m no Tom Skilling. And I’m no Tommy Lee Jones in “Volcano” or John Cusack in “2012” or Tara Reid in “Sharknado.” (Yes, my friends, it is possible for a waterspout to lift up sharks and deposit them in Los Angeles). But I do know cold when I feel it, and by now I’ve figured out which end of a snow shovel to hold.

Sure, I may be the voice of a chilled Mayan calendar maker crying in the wilderness. Then again, we may all be the naive supporting cast of “Polar Vortex: I Told You So.” Just don’t come running to me when there are icicles hanging from your Keurig Grind and Brew coffee machine.

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. Did you know that Jupiter also has a Polar Vortex? And it has an average temperature of minus 234 degrees Fahrenheit. Think about it. He can be reached at

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