The midwestern United States was hit in January by some of the coldest weather in decades.
In Buffalo, North Dakota, and Chicago, Illinois, windchill temperatures fell to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. In Ponsford, Minnesota, it reached minus 66. Schools closed; the postal service suspended mail; and people were warned to “avoid taking deep breaths” so the cold air wouldn’t hurt their lungs.
With all that in mind, today we’re going to talk about some weird words we use for winter weather. Some of them you’ve heard before, but others may be new.
Let’s start with what we just faced: a polar vortex.
What’s a Polar Vortex?
A “polar vortex” sounds dramatic, but it’s actually nothing more than a large area of cold, low-pressure air. One surrounds the North Pole; another, the South Pole. The vortexes are always there, but they get weaker in the summer and stronger in the winter.
That “strengthening” means they expand. In the northern hemisphere, the polar vortex dips down into the jet stream, a westerly flow of air that circles the globe. The jet stream pulls the frigid air down and voila! The temperate in the northern United States can suddenly be the same as the temperature at the North Pole.
By the way, that word “vortex”? It comes from the Latin word “vortere,” meaning “to turn.” It refers to the rapid movement of particles around an axis—in this case, the cold air that swirls counterclockwise around the North Pole.
That same Latin root gives us many other English words too, including “introvert” (meaning “to turn inward”) and “diversify” (with its roots adding up to the literal meaning “to turn in different directions”).
Let’s move on to blizzards.
Blizzards and … Ground Blizzards?
You’ve probably heard of a blizzard. That’s a major snowstorm that lasts at least three hours and has sustained winds of 35 miles an hour or more. The blowing snow in a blizzard is so bad you often can’t see more than a quarter-mile ahead.
You might not have heard of a “ground blizzard.” That’s when no new snow is falling, but high winds blow existing snow horizontally, across the ground, or vertically, up in the air. Conditions in a ground blizzard can be just as bad as in a proper blizzard.
“Blizzard” is a modern word. Its derivation is unknown, but it’s thought to be an onomatopoeia—a word that attempts to capture the sound of something—similar to “blow,” “blast,” or “bluster.” It was first used in the early 1800s to mean a sharp blow or knock. By midcentury, the meaning had been extended to mean “a furious blast of frost-wind and blinding snow, in which man and beast frequently perish.” That poetic description, by the way, is from the Oxford English Dictionary.