Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

January 9, 2014

GARY'S WORLD: Deep freeze mystifies everyone

By Gary Nelson
Senior staffwriter

CROSSVILLE — We really had a cold spell here with snow and plunging temperatures that went down around eight or 10 degrees below zero. It’s the coldest I can remember it getting here in a long time.

It wasn’t just here, though. The temps from the northern states and a large section of the middle of the country and all the way down to Florida plunged. It’s been rough.

Of course the first thing everyone wanted to know is why is it getting so cold down in the south? How could it be 10 below zero in Tennessee and 33 degrees in Alaska?

Weather forecasters started throwing around this term describing the phenomenon as a “polar vortex.”

I’m pretty experienced with cold and blizzard-like conditions. I grew up around Chicago and I can remember many of my childhood winters where temperatures plunged to 20 below zero with a windchill of 60 below — and we went sledding. No way I could do that now.

The first time I saw or heard of this expression was last Sunday afternoon when a friend on Facebook posted, “The polar vortex is coming.”

Now, I’m not an old man or anything, but I have been around for a while and I watch a significant amount of news and weather on the TV and read it on the Internet. For several years I have watched and read forecasts and I’ve never heard of this polar vortex.

But now, over the past four days, I have heard and read the expression “polar vortex” no less than 5,796 times. Maybe even more.

Every single broadcaster who has access to a microphone and TV camera is jumping in on the catch phrase and saying, “Well, this polar vortex is the cause the extreme cold ...”

In reality, the phenomenon is that everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon and using this popular, cool, weather term.

I even heard a couple talking about it in the check out line at the local grocer.

“I heard it was caused by a polar vortex,” the man said.

“Is that so?” She responded. “What is that?”

“I guess it’s a lot of cold air,” he said.

Before this week, how many of you have ever even heard of the polar vortex?

It sounds more like the name of a new sports drink flavor.

This language phenomenon isn’t anything new. I still have nightmares about the time when the phrase “El Nino” become popular. Everyone was casually throwing that expression around like a pair of cheap flip-flops from the dollar store.

Doppler radar, EF scale tornado, Tsunami all have had their time in the overused “popular” expression category over the past several years.

I’ve asked several people online and in casual conversation, “Just exactly what is a polar vortex?”

The responses have been week at best, until I saw an article in the Chronicle where Crossville meteorologist Steve Norris gave an explanation.

I guess language fads aren’t as bad as behavior fads.

One recent behavior fad going along with the deep freeze that’s sweeping across the country is the act of throwing a pan of boiling water into the air and watching it turn into vapor and snow.

“It’s like magic,” one TV personality said.

Irresponsible weather forecasters have performed this act on TV and the videos have gone viral, making every kid in America want to try the trick on their own, create a video and post it online.

I blame this phenomenon on social media sites. People see a video that’s gone viral on the Internet and want to see if it “really” works.

The boiling water trick has scalded hundreds of people with second degree burns.

Another trick is blowing bubbles outside in the freezing air to see if the air will make them freeze. Frozen bubbles aren’t quite as dangerous, but I think you get my point.

I also found what a polar vortex is after reading a story explaining it on NPR.

But, nobody can explain what caused the circular air flow around the north pole to go wobbly, elongate and drift way down into the US, though.

Of course there are many theories out there, but nobody has been able to explain the phenomenon of everybody wanting to use the phrase polar vortex.

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Gary Nelson is a Crossville Chronicle staffwriter. His column is published each Friday. He may be reached at