Weakening polar vortex may yield longer, harsher winters in North America

By: Michael Kuhne, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer

Longer, harsher winters may be in store for the portions of North America as the polar vortex continues to weaken and shifts, according to a new study.

The polar vortex is a large pocket of frigid air that hovers above the polar regions, and is most prominent in the winter months.

Researchers at China's Lanzhou University penned the study, which was published in Nature Climate Change last month.

Look back at Winter Storm Jonas:

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#Blizzard2016 aka Winter Storm Jonas slams the east coast
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#Blizzard2016 aka Winter Storm Jonas slams the east coast

A massive winter storm system pummeled the eastern United States in late January 2016, with two low-pressure systems merging into a potent nor’easter that dropped heavy snow from Virginia to New England. By late afternoon on Jan. 23, snowfall totals were approaching records in several states, and hurricane-force winds were battering the coastlines and leading to serious flooding. The storm was expected to continue through the morning of Jan. 24.

The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite acquired this image of the storm system at 2:15 a.m. EST on Jan. 23. It was composed through the use of the VIIRS “day-night band,” which detects faint light signals such as city lights, moonlight, airglow, and auroras. In the image, the clouds are lit from above by the nearly full Moon and from below by the lights of the heavily populated East Coast. The city lights are blurred in places by cloud cover.

(Photo via NASA)

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 23: A woman walks in strong winds and heavy snow fall in Central Park on January 23, 2016 in New York City. A major Nor'easter is hitting much of the East Coast and parts of the South as forecasts warn of up to two feet of snow in some areas. (Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A man use a skiing on a snow covered street in Manhattan in New York on January 23, 2016. A deadly blizzard with bone-chilling winds and potentially record-breaking snowfall slammed the eastern US on January 23, as officials urged millions in the storm's path to seek shelter -- warning the worst is yet to come. US news reports said at least eight people had died by late Friday from causes related to the monster snowstorm, which is expected to last until early Sunday. / AFP / KENA BETANCUR (Photo credit should read KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A pedestrian walks in the center of a snow-covered residential street in Washington, DC on January 23, 2016. A deadly blizzard with bone-chilling winds and potentially record-breaking snowfall slammed the eastern US on January 23, as officials urged millions in the storm's path to seek shelter -- warning the worst is yet to come. / AFP / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

January 22, 2016

Scott Kelly ‏(@StationCDRKelly): Massive #snowstorm blanketing #EastCoast clearly visible from @Space_Station! Stay safe! #blizzard2016 #YearInSpace

TOPSHOT - A man lays in a pile of snow in Times Square on January 23, 2016 in New York. A deadly blizzard with bone-chilling winds and potentially record-breaking snowfall slammed the eastern US on January 23, as officials urged millions in the storm's path to seek shelter -- warning the worst is yet to come. US news reports said at least eight people had died by late Friday from causes related to the monster snowstorm, which is expected to last until early Sunday. / AFP / Don EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
CAPE MAY, NEW JERSEY - JANUARY 23: Waves crash on the beach on January 23, 2016 in Cape May, New Jersey. A major snowstorm is upon the East Coast this weekend with some areas expected to receive over a foot of snow. (Photo by Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 22: Nuns from the Fraternite Notre-Dame in Chicago, Illinois are covered in newly fallen snow as they walk along Constitution Avenue while snow begins to accumulate January 22, 2016 in Washington, DC. A major snowstorm is forecasted for the East Coast this weekend with some areas expected to receive up to 1-2 feet of snow. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Snow covers cars parked in Washington on January 23, 2016. A deadly blizzard with bone-chilling winds and potentially record-breaking snowfall slammed the eastern US on Saturday, as officials urged millions in the storm's path to seek shelter -- warning the worst is yet to come. US news reports said at least eight people had died by late Friday from causes related to the monster snowstorm, which is expected to last until early Sunday. / AFP / Mladen ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A man pushing a snow plough during a snowstorm January 22, 2016 in New York. / AFP / FRANCOIS XAVIER MARIT (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS XAVIER MARIT/AFP/Getty Images)
A man walks on snow covered Thomas Circle in Washington on January 23, 2016. A deadly blizzard with bone-chilling winds and potentially record-breaking snowfall slammed the eastern US on Saturday, as officials urged millions in the storm's path to seek shelter -- warning the worst is yet to come. US news reports said at least eight people had died by late Friday from causes related to the monster snowstorm, which is expected to last until early Sunday. / AFP / Mladen ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 22: A snowplow cleans up snow on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the U.S. Capitol January 22, 2016 in Washington, DC. A winter snowstorm is forecasted for the East Coast this weekend with prediction of up to 30 inches of snow for the DC area. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - The White House is seen during a snowstorm in Washington January 22, 2016. Thousands of flights were cancelled and supermarket shelves were left bare Friday as millions of Americans hunkered down for a winter storm expected to dump historic amounts of snow in the eastern United States. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - People cross 15ht Street during a snowstorm in Washington January 22, 2016. Thousands of flights were cancelled and supermarket shelves were left bare Friday as millions of Americans hunkered down for a winter storm expected to dump historic amounts of snow in the eastern United States. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Homeless covers from the snow in Central park on January 23, 2016 in New York. A deadly blizzard with bone-chilling winds and potentially record-breaking snowfall slammed the eastern US on Saturday, as officials urged millions in the storm's path to seek shelter -- warning the worst is yet to come. US news reports said at least eight people had died by late Friday from causes related to the monster snowstorm, which is expected to last until early Sunday. / AFP / KENA BETANCUR (Photo credit should read KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)
A man walks past a restaurant during a snowstorm January 22, 2016 in Washington, DC. Thousands of flights were cancelled and supermarket shelves were left bare Friday as millions of Americans hunkered down for a winter storm expected to dump historic amounts of snow in the eastern United States. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
CHAPEL HILL, NC - JANUARY 22: Vehicles move along Interstate 40 as an overhead sign indicates 'Winter Weather Warning In Effect' during a winter storm on January 22, 2016 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A major snowstorm is forecasted for the East Coast this weekend with some areas getting a possible one to two feet of snow. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
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Lanzhou researchers found that a loss of sea ice in the Arctic regions due to rising temperatures in the Barents-Kara seas, along with an increase in snow cover over Europe and Asia, has caused the polar vortex to weaken. The pocket of cold air has in turn shifted toward Eurasia.

This movement could lead to colder and possibly extended winter seasons for portions of North America and Eurasia, according to the study.

"With warming and ridging in the Kara Sea, this typically allows for less ice cover but also is a conducive atmospheric pattern for lower temperatures in the North American mid-latitudes," AccuWeather Meteorologist Edward Vallee said.

The polar vortex in winter can extend well into the atmosphere and at times be more than 100,000 feet deep, AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Bob Smerbeck said.

A weaker polar vortex allows the stratosphere, or a distant part of the Earth's atmosphere, to warm, while a stronger one prevents that process, according to Vallee.

"The stratospheric vortex typically governs the tropospheric vortex [in the lower part of the Earth's atmosphere] during the winter months and is based on polar heating and cooling," Vallee said.

"As the stratosphere warms in winter, it can reverse the wind direction below it," he said.

Learn more about the New York City blizzard of 1947:

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New York City blizzard of 1947
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New York City blizzard of 1947
UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 27: Daily News back page headline Saturday, December 27, 1947 , TRAINS AND AUTOS STALLED, Frozen Artery, Snow Chokes the Lincoln Tunnel, 1947 Snowstorm (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 26: El train stalled on Third Ave. at 42nd St., after a snowstorm brought the city to a virtual standstill. (Photo by Art Whittaker/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 27: Betty Lou and brother Patrick O'Connor attempt to dig out their father's car out of the snow with toy shovels on 29th St. and Second Ave. after snow storm blankets city. (Photo by Walter Kelleher/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 1947: City sidewalk piled with snow after blizzard. (Photo by Andreas Feininger/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 26: Snowed in Daily News employees bed down in make-shift dormitory during blizzard. (Photo by Leroy Jakob/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 27: Long Island Rail Road workers begin to clear tracks in Rockaway Park, where trains have not moved for a day after a snow storm. (Photo by Ed Clarity/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1947: 1947 Snowstorm in the Bronx (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
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This could block high pressure systems from taking shape in the high latitudes of the Earth, which would increase opportunities for cold in the mid-latitudes.

According to Smerbeck, the southern shift could bring the other end of the polar vortex toward eastern North America, yielding colder winters for the region.

"There are other factors that determine where the vortex sets up," Smerbeck said. "The warm blob over the north Pacific in winter 2013-2014 and the unusually warm waters along the west coast of North America [for the] 2014-2015 winter contributed to a southward dip in the vortex across eastern North America and cold winters in the central and eastern U.S."

Smerbeck said there is a lot of research still being conducted, and that while some researchers may not find the latest study overly convincing, a mechanical connection between the lack of sea ice and the vortex shift as opposed to just a statistical connection should allow for more accurate modeling.

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At times during the winter, a warm layer of air will develop high up near the stratosphere over eastern Asia and head toward the stratospheric vortex causing it to weaken by being pinched, displaced or even split. This will cause a portion of the stratospheric vortex to extend farther south.

A stronger polar vortex will hold the cold air northward. When it weakens and shifts away from the pole either by squeezing, splitting or displacement, it will drag cold air with it, Smerbeck added.

"Reduced sea ice over the Barents-Kara seas in the fall leads to a storm track that can increase snow cover over Eurasia and Siberia," he said.

"It has been shown that increases in Eurasian and Siberian snow cover in the fall can launch upper-level warming events that reach into the stratosphere and weaken the stratospheric polar vortex," he said, stating that this Arctic warming can weaken and alter the placement of the polar vortex.

Look back at snowfall in Washington DC last winter:

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D.C. celebrates historic snowstorm with a massive snowball fight
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D.C. celebrates historic snowstorm with a massive snowball fight
A man dressed as Captain America uses his shield to deflect a snowball during the DC Snowball Fight on Dupont Circle in Washington on January 24, 2016. Snowball fights have become a tradition after every major snow storm in the Nation's Capital. A massive blizzard that claimed at least 16 lives in the eastern United States finally appeared to be winding down Sunday, giving snowbound residents the chance to begin digging out. / AFP / Nicholas Kamm (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
People participate in a giant snowball fight in Dupont Circle in Washington on January 24, 2016. Snowball fights have become a tradition after every major snow storm in the Nation's Capital. A massive blizzard that claimed at least 16 lives in the eastern United States finally appeared to be winding down Sunday, giving snowbound residents the chance to begin digging out. / AFP / Olivier Douliery (Photo credit should read OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty Images)
People using a cardboard box as protection get hit by a snowball during the DC Snowball Fight on Dupont Circle in Washington on January 24, 2016. Snowball fights have become a tradition after every major snow storm in the Nation's Capital. A massive blizzard that claimed at least 16 lives in the eastern United States finally appeared to be winding down Sunday, giving snowbound residents the chance to begin digging out. / AFP / Nicholas Kamm (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
People take part in the DC Snowball Fight on Dupont Circle in Washington on January 24, 2016. Snowball fights have become a tradition after every major snow storm in the Nation's Capital. A massive blizzard that claimed at least 16 lives in the eastern United States finally appeared to be winding down Sunday, giving snowbound residents the chance to begin digging out. / AFP / Nicholas Kamm (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - People participate in a giant snowball fight in Dupont Circle in Washington on January 24, 2016. Snowball fights have become a tradition after every major snow storm in the Nation's Capital. A massive blizzard that claimed at least 16 lives in the eastern United States finally appeared to be winding down Sunday, giving snowbound residents the chance to begin digging out. / AFP / Olivier Douliery (Photo credit should read OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty Images)
People participate in a giant snowball fight in Dupont Circle in Washington on January 24, 2016. Snowball fights have become a tradition after every major snow storm in the Nation's Capital. A massive blizzard that claimed at least 16 lives in the eastern United States finally appeared to be winding down Sunday, giving snowbound residents the chance to begin digging out. / AFP / Olivier Douliery (Photo credit should read OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty Images)
People participate in a giant snowball fight in Dupont Circle in Washington on January 24, 2016. Snowball fights have become a tradition after every major snow storm in the Nation's Capital. A massive blizzard that claimed at least 16 lives in the eastern United States finally appeared to be winding down Sunday, giving snowbound residents the chance to begin digging out. / AFP / Olivier Douliery (Photo credit should read OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty Images)
People participate in a giant snowball fight in Dupont Circle in Washington on January 24, 2016. Snowball fights have become a tradition after every major snow storm in the Nation's Capital. A massive blizzard that claimed at least 16 lives in the eastern United States finally appeared to be winding down Sunday, giving snowbound residents the chance to begin digging out. / AFP / Olivier Douliery (Photo credit should read OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty Images)
People take part in the DC Snowball Fight on Dupont Circle in Washington on January 24, 2016. Snowball fights have become a tradition after every major snow storm in the Nation's Capital. A massive blizzard that claimed at least 16 lives in the eastern United States finally appeared to be winding down Sunday, giving snowbound residents the chance to begin digging out. / AFP / Nicholas Kamm (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
People participate in a giant snowball fight in Dupont Circle in Washington on January 24, 2016. Snowball fights have become a tradition after every major snow storm in the Nation's Capital. A massive blizzard that claimed at least 16 lives in the eastern United States finally appeared to be winding down Sunday, giving snowbound residents the chance to begin digging out. / AFP / Olivier Douliery (Photo credit should read OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty Images)
A man dressed as a Jedi knight takes part in the DC Snowball Fight in Washington on January 24, 2016. Snowball fights have become a tradition after every major snow storm in the Nation's Capital. A massive blizzard that claimed at least 16 lives in the eastern United States finally appeared to be winding down Sunday, giving snowbound residents the chance to begin digging out. / AFP / Nicholas Kamm (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
A boy throws a snowball at a man dressed as Captain America during the DC Snowball Fight on Dupont Circle in Washington on January 24, 2016. Snowball fights have become a tradition after every major snow storm in the Nation's Capital. A massive blizzard that claimed at least 16 lives in the eastern United States finally appeared to be winding down Sunday, giving snowbound residents the chance to begin digging out. / AFP / Nicholas Kamm (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
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