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Polar Opposites: The Extremes of Climate Change

By Madeline Playford

Whilst Australia battles a record smashing heatwave, widespread drought and bushfires, the United States, in the Northern Hemisphere, has been struggling with a polar vortex, which has brought freezing temperatures never experienced before. So, what is going on? Is it pure coincidence, or could climate change be interfering with our global temperatures?

The summer of 2018/19 has seen Australia swelter through temperatures as high as 460C in north-western New South Wales and 49.10C in inland South Australia. The blistering conditions saw Australia record its hottest December ever on record, with December 27th registering a national average maximum temperature of 40.190C. This heat has instigated potentially devasting consequences with the risk and intensity of bushfires being heightened across the country, which has resulted in total fire bans to protect properties and bushland. Shockingly, Tasmania experiencing its driest January on record, faced an unprecedented fire event recently, which saw 187,000 hectares of bush burnt and widespread evacuations from homes, and in Victoria, more than 2,000 flying foxes were found dead as a result of extreme heat.

This weather phenomenon has also resulted in a drastic increase in ozone levels, with Richard Broome, Director of Environmental Health at NSW Health, warning of an expected 14% increase in emergency room admissions and a 13% rise in mortality as the “ozone can irritate the lungs”, so “people with asthma and other chronic respiratory diseases…are especially vulnerable”. Australians have also been affected by public transport delays, planes have been grounded, roads have melted, and many homes have encountered blackouts due to the excessive use of air conditioning.

Simultaneously, a polar vortex has been hovering on portions of North America with temperatures abnormally plunging well below freezing, and strong winds chilling the United States. This band of strong winds, originating in the North Pole, has travelled further south than usual which has resulted in this polar vortex. The Midwest and East Coast regions of the United States have had the worst impact, with North Dakota recording -370C and Chicago recording -300C, reportedly colder than areas of Antarctica. At least 21 people have died in the USA in weather-related incidents, including an 18-year-old college student found dead from exposure to the cold on campus. Hundreds of schools as well as colleges and universities have been forced to close down due to the risk of frostbite and other health conditions. Roads are unsafe, and in the Midwest alone, up to 1700 flights were cancelled due to blizzard conditions. With such extreme weather events in both hemispheres, is the world spinning out of control?

Climate scientists argue that the Earth is warming due to climate change, and areas near the North Pole warming more than 2 times faster than the rest of the globe. The Journal of the American Meteorological Society presented a research paper, suggesting that the warm air invading the Arctic Circle is weakening the polar vortex, displacing masses of cold air across North America and Eurasia. So, ironically, despite the cold in the US, global temperatures are rising, with the past four years being the hottest on record and the ocean temperatures steadily rising as well. With this in mind, research surrounding the polar vortex is very much active, as the world looks on and debates the role of climate change. It seems perplexing that the evidence on the table has not convinced skeptics.

So, what it will take?


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