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What’s in a name? On the use and significance of the term “polar vortex”
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  • Gloria L Manney,
  • Amy Hawes Butler,
  • Zachary Duane Lawrence,
  • Krzysztof Wargan,
  • Michelle L. Santee
Gloria L Manney
Northwest Research Associates, Northwest Research Associates

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Amy Hawes Butler
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Zachary Duane Lawrence
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Krzysztof Wargan
Science Systems and Applications, Inc., Science Systems and Applications, Inc.
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Michelle L. Santee
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
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The mainstream media and popular science platforms are rife with misunderstandings about what a “polar vortex” is. The term most aptly describes the stratospheric polar vortex, a single feature dominating the cool-season circulation at ∼15–50 km altitude. Regional upper tropospheric jet stream variations dominate the tropospheric circulation, which is not well-described by the idea of a polar vortex; indeed, there is no single consistent definition of a tropospheric polar vortex in the literature. Stratospheric polar vortex disturbances profoundly influence extreme weather events such as cold air outbreaks (CAO). How the stratospheric polar vortex affects the tropospheric jets, local excursions of which drive CAOs, is not yet fully understood. The most public-facing parts of publications describing research on this topic are sometimes unclear about how the “polar vortex” is defined; greater clarity could help improve communications both within the community and with non-specialist audiences.