What Is a Polar Vortex?
Plus, nine ways to stay safe in sub-zero temperatures
If the weatherman says a polar vortex is bringing cold weather your way — as is the case right now for people in the Northeast, who should plan to bundle up on Valentine’s day — get ready for air that’s colder than cold: Think bone-chilling, Arctic-like temperatures.
The polar vortex is a large area of low pressure and cold air surrounding both of the Earth’s poles, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). A counter-clockwise flow of air helps keep the cold air near the poles. But sometimes in winter, the northern hemisphere’s polar vortex will expand and send cold air south with the jet stream, NWS says.
The polar vortex is nothing new, and it’s not cause for alarm, according to the NWS, but it may send Arctic air into areas that aren’t used to having such low temperatures. And that’s where it gets dangerous.
Here are nine ways to keep you and your family safe and warm in seriously cold weather.
Layer up. The American Red Cross says to wear layers of lightweight clothing to keep warm, and remember that heat can escape through any exposed skin. So wear gloves and a hat if you venture outside.
Keep pets inside. If it’s too cold outside for you, it’s too cold outside for your pet, according to the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). If for any reason they can’t come inside, make sure they have enough shelter (preferably raised off the cold ground) to keep them warm and access to unfrozen water, the ASPCA says.
Use space heaters carefully. Don’t let your space heater become a fire hazard. Place it in a dry location, don’t run the cord under a rug or carpet and unplug the heater when you’re done using it, according to the safety experts at UL.
Ditto your fireplace. Keep anything that can burn at least three feet away from the fireplace, according to John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at UL. Don’t use accelerants to start a fire, and use only dry, well-aged wood.
Protect your pipes. Let cold water drip from a faucet. Running even a tiny amount of water through the pipe helps prevent pipes from freezing, according to the American Red Cross.
Walk like a penguin on ice. If you’re walking outside on icy patches, here’s how to avoid a fall. Spread your feet to widen your base, which makes it harder to fall. Bend your knees a little to lower your center of gravity. As you walk, tilt forward slightly and keep most of your weight on your front leg. Put your arms out to your sides.
Winterize your car. Keep the gas tank near full to help avoid ice in the tank and fuel lines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Also, stock your trunk with a blanket, extra hats and gloves and bottled water. Read these other ways to winterize your car.
Never use a generator indoors. Generators, like all fuel-burning appliances, produce carbon monoxide, an odorless, colorless gas that that can build up in the air and poison the people who breathe it. Keep generators outdoors under a canopy, if possible, to keep rain and snow away from it. And make sure you have a carbon monoxide detector in your home.
Know the signs of frostbite and hypothermia. Get inside pronto at the first sign of numbness, tingling, shivering or shaking. Kids should take regular breaks to come inside and get warm.
Related: Stay Safe in Crazy Cold Weather