Visualizing the Latest Arctic Blast

By Tom Yulsman | January 28, 2014 3:43 pm
cold front animation

Screenshot from an animation depicting the blast of Arctic air rushing south across much of the U.S. (Images: Animation: Tom Yulsman)

By now you’ve probably heard enough about the polar vortex to make your head, well, spin. So as the Southeastern United States is being pummeled by a rare winter storm, I thought I’d try to come up with a visualization of the current Arctic blast that’s a bit different from what you may have seen already.

Click on the image above to watch what I’ve put together. It’s an animation based on visualizations from depicting both the wind field and temperatures over the United States from early in the morning this past Sunday (Jan. 26) through this morning.

The moving lines correspond to the winds, and the colors to temperature (with blues, greens, and purples indicating areas that are colder). I am particularly struck by the pattern of winds at about six seconds into the animation. The cold air rushing from northwest to southeast really does look like a blast from a shotgun.

To make the animation I took individual screenshots of the wind field and temperature in three hour increments — 18 separate screenshots in all. Then I compiled them into a GIF animation, which I uploaded as a movie to Youtube. (I should also tip my hat to Andrew Freedman, whose post at Climate Central got me going on this idea.)

Arctic blast Jan. 28

The visualization is actually based on forecasts by supercomputers, not observations. But it does seem to be in accord with observed temperatures, which you can see by clicking on the thumbnail at right.

This latest Arctic blast, as with ones previously (including this one) comes as the jet stream has developed a huge, southward kink. This in turn has allowed frigid air from the high north to rush south.

Arctic blast jet stream Jan. 26

A map of the jet stream on Jan. 26, as seen in a polar projection. (Source: California Regional Weather Server/San Francisco State University)

The map above shows the position of the jet stream on Jan. 26. You’re looking straight down onto the North Pole. North America is in the lower right quadrant.

Notice the large southward dip over Canada and into the Upper Midwest of the United States. This has since plunged further south, bringing cold air with it.

Also note the upward kink that takes in Alaska. This has resulted in extreme warmth there, with at least seven record high temperatures for January experienced in recent days. For example, Nome reached 51°F (10.6°C) yesterday, beating the former record of 46°F (7.8°C) set on January 7, 1942.

Here’s a map of the overall pattern in the Northern Hemisphere:

Arctic Blast Northern Hemisphere pattern

A map of geopotential height anomalies in the Northern Hemisphere. Blues and purples correspond to colder temperatures. Warmer colors to higher temperatures. (Source: NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory)

Technically speaking, this map shows a forecast from today for something called geopotential height anomalies. For a good explanation, go here.

Suffice it to say that geopotential height is the elevation of an air pressure surface above sea level. Since cold air is relatively dense, pressure surfaces in cold air masses tend to be lower than in warm air masses. And that means geopotential heights in cold areas are lower.

In the map of height anomalies above, the colors show departures from average, with blues and purples showing lower than normal heights and therefore colder than average temperatures.

It’s a little difficult to discern the outlines of continents, individual nations, and U.S. states in the map. But Mexico and Florida are pretty clearly visible at the bottom toward the middle. Follow them up north into the rest of North America, and you should be able to orient yourself.

As the map shows, unusually warm air is parked over Alaska and much of the Arctic, displacing a lobe of particularly frigid air over the United States. (The lobe visible over the United Kingdom is indicative of low pressure there that’s bringing stormy and colder than average conditions there.)

This is what you get when the polar vortex weakens — something which could be linked to climate change, although the scientific jury is still out on that.

Arctic blast hits Colorado

A farmhouse and bare cottonwood trees in Niwot, CO, just as the Arctic blast was moving through. (Photograph: © Tom Yulsman)

Lastly, I’m sure many of us have stories to tell about when the cold front moved through. I was out for a walk with my wife, and my best friend (Moe, our Labradoodle). I checked the temperature just as I was leaving: 62 degrees F. The sun was so bright it almost hurt. (Granted, I hadn’t seen it for two weeks, having just gotten back from a trip above the Arctic Circle in Norway.)

But to the north and east, clouds were gathering quickly. And about a mile into our walk, the Arctic blast hit us. Winds were gusting to about 25 miles per hour, and literally within seconds the temperature had plunged by 15 degrees. About two hours later, it began to snow.

If you look at the animation at the top of this post, you can see that front moving down through the West and spreading south.

My friends are blaming me for bringing the Arctic air back with me from Norway. But I think it’s the polar vortex. (There. I said it.)

  • tfosorcim

    This is the type of informative, interesting, topical article the internet is made for. And–obviously– written by a very knowledgeable individual who is trying to make his very in-depth knowledge understandable for the rest of us; and not trying to “display his erudition”.
    It’s a shame that this is the very rare exception to what one most often finds as “informative articles” on the www.

    Great job, Mr. Yulsman

    “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand the subject”–Albert Einstein

    • Tom Yulsman

      Many thanks for taking the time to write that. I appreciate it more than you can know.

      • tfosorcim

        “Most people have very few people who remember them. Good teachers have thousands of people who remember them.
        –Andy Rooney

        “The secret to success is to take something you love and figure out how to make money at it.”–unk

        Nurture your talent.

  • Smilingswan

    Could this change in the weather patterns have anything to do with the possibility of the Earth’s magnetic poles shifting? I’m not a scientist, but I remember reading something related to this and it strikes me as a similar pattern.

  • Cheralynne T Kastner

    Ed Stein once did a cartoon of someone dressing for a spring/summer day in Denver. Started w/shorts, ended w/boots and snorkle parka 6 panels later.
    36 years in Denver and never a boring weather day.
    I’ve been in Denver, Boulder and also Baggs WY when a front has moved in within a short (minutes) period of time, droping the temp presipitously.
    It’s not that ‘odd’ for the Front Range or the mountains, is it?

    The fact that the jet stream has shifted THIS FAR SOUTH AND EAST seems to be the anomaly.

    Except for California’s drought and higher temps in Alaska, very little has been said about the PNW. The ENTIRE WEST COAST is in drought, higher temps as well as a coastal tempeture inversion.
    My understanding is that this is due to the shifting of the jet stream.
    Which has happened before.
    What I’ve not heard ( or missed) is whether the Pacific Ocean’s surface temp is much different from the past, El Niño or La Niña having an effect, or other variables that might have influence on the jet stream shifting.
    I follow your blog and my 11 year old grandson reads them with interest (he skis) and asked me if you had blogged about the
    difference inetween this winter and “all of the others.” All 11.
    I add my apreciation to that of a previous comment. You have managed to bridge the gap to elucidate and illuminate.
    Miles will enjoy this one!

    Thank you, Mr. Yulsman.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Thank you Cheralynne! I’ll give your questions some thought and see what I can come up with. I may have to wait until the winter is done so that all the relevant statistics are available and NOAA issues its seasonal report. But I am planning to do something soon about the drought on the West coast. I want to be sure to add to what others have done, not just repeat it. So stay tuned. And thanks again!

  • Attila Maradi

    HAARP. After seeing the anomaly in the motion of jet streams.

  • Parviz Hassanpour

    thank you for every thing //

  • myname stillmyname

    “As the map shows, unusually warm air is parked over Alaska and much of
    the Arctic, displacing a lobe of particularly frigid air over the United
    States. (The lobe visible over the United Kingdom is indicative of low
    pressure there that’s bringing stormy and colder than average conditions


    stormy and wet yes.. colder than normal.. no. I’ve only scraped ice off the car a couple of times this winter.. and we’re going through firewood fairly slowly.

    thankfully we’re not flooded, that’s the big story over here.


    • Tom Yulsman

      Thanks for this!



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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