What a winter it’s been! Widespread frigid temperatures. Snow blanketing vast sections of the country - even barging into the deep south, like Florida and Texas. Cold, dry air can cause worsening coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, making it even more difficult for people with chronic lung diseases such as asthma or COPD to catch their breath. What’s up with this crazy winter weather? The culprit, according to scientists, is climate change. But how can climate change, usually associated with warming temperatures, cause a winter like this? Didn’t we just come off the warmest year on record? All this is true. But it all makes sense once we understand something called the Arctic polar vortex, and what climate change is doing to it.

The earth’s atmosphere is far from static. Miles above the surface of the earth are many strong currents of air, that move like streams up and down and around the globe. The Jet Stream and Gulf Stream are two of the of the most well-known. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Gulf Stream is a powerful current of air that influences the climate of the east coast of Florida by keeping temperatures warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer than other southeastern states. 

The Artic polar vortex also has an important impact on our climate. The Arctic polar vortex is a band of strong winds that forms between 10 and 30 miles above the North Pole each winter. As these winds circle above the North Pole, they enclose a large pool of extremely cold air, essentially trapping that cold air in the polar region, and isolating them from moving south to warmer latitudes. It also prevents warmer air from travelling up into the polar region. The stronger the winds, the colder the air trapped inside gets. When the winds of the vortex are strong and stable, they do this job well. When something disrupts the vortex, not so well.

This NOAA image illustrates this disruption.

Polar vortex NOAA climate image courtesy of NOAA

According to scientists, the arctic is warming due to climate change, and it is happening up to four times faster than the rest of the planet. They believe this uneven rate of warming is weakening the polar vortex and the polar jet stream below it, which also helps maintain the equilibrium between colder and warmer latitudes.

When the polar vortex weakens, due to a warmer polar ice cap, the equilibrium is lost and frigid air drifts south and warmer air can sneak up north. This shift can send bands of severe snow-laden winter weather south. This is what we saw this year in the midwest and south. So, though it seems counterintuitive, a warming climate can mean more severe winter weather! 

Many scientists foresee this happening more frequently as climate change continues unchecked. The warming effects of climate change are already impacting our health, with increased air pollution, widespread wildfires and dangerous heat waves. So, what can we do? 

First, if you are living with a chronic lung disease, follow your asthma or COPD action plan and speak with your healthcare provider about any symptoms that worsen and steps you can take to protect your lungs.

Second, we can learn how to protect ourselves from extreme temperatures and big storms. These impacts of a changing climate are here, and we all need to be ready to keep our lungs safe. Learn more at Lung.org/disaster.

And third, the nation urgently needs strong new protections in place to keep these climate impacts from getting worse. The federal government is working on several new rules that would clean up future cars and trucks and cut pollution from power plants. These actions are urgently needed to protect lung health. But with polluting industries ramping up their efforts to stop these standards, it’s important that you weigh in. 

Take action today in support of strong measures to clean up polluting sources and address climate change.

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