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PunditFact: Limbaugh claims 'polar vortex' is media creation

The statement

Says the media created the term "polar vortex" and the cold air proves "the ice isn't melting."

Rush Limbaugh, Monday on his radio show

The ruling

"Polar vortex" may sound new to Limbaugh, but it's not a term the media cooked up to scare you. It's been part of the conversation in meteorology circles since at least the 1940s and '50s, experts told us.

The polar vortex is the region in the northern hemisphere that contains the planet's cold or Arctic air. A warmer atmosphere lies outside of the vortex. The boundary between the regions is a jet stream of strong, fast-moving, frigid winds.

Sometimes the jet stream is more symmetrical, encircling the polar region in an oval without many bumps. Other times, especially this week, its rotation breaks off into deep troughs, ushering cold air to the south. A polar outbreak occurs in areas that have big drops in temperature, where the polar vortex has dipped pronouncedly south.

Now, whether this week's polar outbreak is a result of global warming is a matter of active scientific debate. Rutgers University climate researcher Jennifer Francis co-authored a 2012 research paper arguing the loss of Arctic ice leads to more extremes — not just more frigid winters for the East Coast, but also record warm temperatures in Alaska, record drought in California, storms in the United Kingdom and a warm winter for Scandinavia.

"This sort of jet stream pattern is what we expect to occur more often as the Arctic continues to warm faster than the rest of the globe in response to increasing greenhouse gases," she said. "We can't say this particular event is caused by climate change, but it is becoming clearer that this sort of pattern should become more likely in the future."

Sea ice at the North Pole is obviously not melting right this second. That's because it's January, and the pole is in darkness all day and night.

But Arctic sea ice is almost at a record low for this time of year, Francis pointed out, even though it is up from 2012, the record low year. Scientists look at long-term trends, not annual shifts, to base their conclusions.

"The long-term trend in Arctic sea ice is sharply downwards, and this trend has the capability to cause significant alterations in jet stream behavior that can cause an increase in both warm and cold extreme events in the winter," said Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at Weather Underground.

Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder, labeled Limbaugh's connection between the cold snap and sea ice "absurd."

We rate it Pants on Fire!

Edited for print. Read the full version at

PunditFact: Limbaugh claims 'polar vortex' is media creation 01/10/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 10, 2014 9:06pm]
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