News Source: 
UW Today
November 18, 2013

After a couple of stressful weeks during the federal government shutdown, University of Washington researchers are back at work monitoring conditions near the North Pole. November has been busy for UW scientists studying winter storms, glacier melt and floating sea ice.

‘Hurricane hunter’ measures polar vortex

A long-planned mission researchers had feared could be cancelled finally left in late October. Nick Bond, a research meteorologist at the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, returned from 2 1/2 weeks in Alaska as part of a trip to measure how less ice and more open water in the Arctic Ocean might influence storm paths.

The partnership between the UW and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration used NOAA’s “hurricane hunter” aircraft to fly just above the ice edge and see how heat radiating off the surface could destabilize the polar vortex, a huge weather feature that can affect storms throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

“When the polar vortex is strong, it’s very stable,” Bond said. “It’s like a Frisbee spinning fast – it’s stable and the cold air that develops in the Arctic is kind of bottled up.”

When the polar vortex is weaker, however, wobbles can send cold air shooting south. That’s when places like New York City, Washington, D.C., Northern Europe and Eastern Asia get hit with snowstorms and wintry weather.

Some scientists have suggested that an ice-free Arctic Ocean could destabilize the polar vortex. The mission collected data to help test this controversial theory, Bond said.