Every winter since “polar vortex” has become a mainstream term, there have been many debates on social media as to what exactly the polar vortex is, how to classify “pieces” of it that break off and surge into the lower latitudes, and where exactly the polar vortex “lives” in the different levels of the atmosphere. Ask several meteorologists what it is, and more often than not you will get different answers.
Just as “derecho” is now misused during summer convection, “polar vortex” has been taken over by mainstream media to mean “really cold air be coming”. But hey now, that’s not what the polar vortex is! Like derecho, we need to let go of the more strict, by-the-books definition for the polar vortex. It’s a catchy term that the public and weather community alike can instantly associate to strong cold. If anything, that helps weather communication.
I used to be a stickler for following the strict definitions. Then I learned that once a certain meaning of a term has gone mainstream, there is no going back. We can’t correct how “polar vortex” is used, and it might be for the better. No layman cares about what’s happening at 500mb, and even fewer care about what’s happening at 50mb.