In the vortex, with a pencil

A "polar vortex" originating in Siberia descended Monday into much of the U.S. and pushed temperatures in the Lehigh Valley to below zero Tuesday morning.

I went out early Tuesday to have a look at the "polar vortex," the latest forecasting catch phrase to emanate from the people who bring us the weather.

The first time I heard it was last week, and it reminded me of that "Saturday Night Live" skit in which Wayne and Garth contended that CNN's Wolf Blitzer had made up his name just for the Gulf War.

It also sounded like the title of one of those cheapie movies dreamed up by the fevered minds at the SyFy Channel. And, sure enough, someone on Facebook dummied up a poster for a movie called "Sharknado vs. Polar Vortex," in which sharks and polar bears caught up in whirlwinds duke it out in the heartland.

"It's not going to be that cold," the older daughter sniffed when her mother insisted she wear a coat and gloves and a scarf if she went outside to enjoy her first-ever day off on account of cold.

Children in the throes of denial need to be told of the effects of frostbite — fingers turning black, noses shattering like Christmas ornaments, ears falling off entirely. It's not true, exactly, but it at least makes them hesitate as they envision being condemned to a nose-less, ear-less, finger-less future simply because of stubbornness.

Well, as I say, I wanted to see the polar vortex up close. When I awoke, it was minus 1 degree; as I drove to work, it was 0; by the time I arrived, it was 2. I packed a pad and a pencil, because pens, you may know, freeze, and pencils do not.

I looked to the sky, expecting to see a sort of cloud-like something-or-other. But polar vortexes — that is an acceptable plural form, along with vortices — aren't visible phenomena, like tornadoes.

No, they are simply swirling masses of Arctic air that sometimes spill down into the lower latitudes.

The phrase "swirling mass of Arctic air" is a mouthful, and a bland one. Polar vortex is punchy and cool. The first description is Richie Cunningham. The second is Fonzie.

And when you use it this way — "Nearly 200 million Americans are at risk from the polar vortex!" — you have all the ingredients of a good weather story.

Now, polar vortex appears to be a genuine meteorological descriptor, but I am not alone in suspecting the phrase was invented in a Weather Channel week-ahead planning meeting.

The Weather Channel, after all, is the outfit that made us realize we were all pretty well doomed by the weather one way or another. Before it came on the air, we put on sweaters in the cold or raised umbrellas in the rain, and the forecast occupied three minutes of the newscast, after sports.

Today, we get six weather updates per half-hour and shudder at the approach of "atmospheric bombs" and "storms of the century."

"They come up with these things," said Darryl Shive of Bethlehem, as he waited for a bus along Allentown's Ninth Street where a bank thermometer read 2 degrees. "Like they name the winter storms now."

Indeed. It was "Hercules" that gave us all that snow at the end of last week. Had it been called "Harold" or "Hortense," I firmly believe my children would have had school Friday.

Shive, who was on his way to work at an industrial park near Lehigh Valley International Airport, was the most amiable of the people I met in my Arctic roaming. He told me he had dressed in plenty of layers — fleece-lined jeans, a leather jacket to keep the wind out — but he was still unhappy with the conditions.

"I'm a 70 degrees-and-above guy," he said. "If a palm tree sprung up, I'd be happy. I can do without the vortex."

A woman named Michelle Oldenwelder was the only other person waiting for the bus. She said it ought to come early when it's so very cold.

I told her I had met a man earlier in the day who was wearing short pants. It scandalized her.

"Those kind of people get pneumonia and the flu," she said, as she boarded the bus.





Look for this special section in your
Baltimore Sun newspaper on Dec. 29, 2013.
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