Monday, November 10, 2014

None Dare Call It the Polar Vortex

notavortex Well, except for CBS News, which senses potential viewers for weather freak out news and is willing to turn “cold weather” into a brand – the way the Weather Channel has attempted to name snow storms despite no pressing need to do so.

It's the return of the polar vortex that brought misery a year ago. A mass of whirling cold air will dip southward this weekend, sending the mercury plunging.

But here’s the problem: the polar vortex is right where it should be. And that’s important, because the actual polar vortex has implications for the energy sphere which risks getting muddled if every cold blast is called a polar vortex.

The actual polar vortex sent temperatures plummeting so fast last January that it froze natural gas lines and coal piles. During that time, when the prices of natural gas skyrocketed and coal facilities had to shut down, wind and especially nuclear energy kept the lights on.

The event basically demonstrated the value of energy diversity, where one type of electricity generation spells another when necessary. This is a strength of the American energy market which is often overlooked – because its value only becomes apparent when it needs to, as when unexpectedly cold air swamps part of the country.

I’m reasonably sure the coal and natural gas industries has reviewed lessons learned from last year and are far better prepared for another polar vortex. But the lesson was that nuclear energy showed a benefit it had not often been called upon to show – its strength under this kind of specific pressure and, more generally, as a key component in keeping electricity flowing. It was a terrible test, but nuclear energy passed it without a sweat.

So it would be a shame – not only for nuclear energy specifically or energy diversity generally, but also as a term with a specific meaning – if CBS News were to turn the polar vortex into a branding opportunity for cynical short term ratings gain. We can’t stop it, but we can deplore it.

For the record, here’s a definition of the polar vortex, from Scientific American:

The polar vortex is a prevailing wind pattern that circles the Arctic, flowing from west to east all the way around the Earth. It normally keeps extremely cold air bottled up toward the North Pole. Occasionally, though, the vortex weakens, allowing the cold air to pour down across Canada into the U.S., or down into other regions such Eastern Europe.

And this is what’s happening now, from CNN:

Technically, it's called a mid-latitude storm.

The storm carries the energy of the typhoon and its current strength is derived from clashes of hot and cold air. This incredibly strong cyclone will alter the jet stream allowing for the cold air to plunge into the United States next week.

CNN also notes that it is not the polar vortex.

Meanwhile, CBS News has these headlines up on their site.

Get ready for "Polar Vortex, The Sequel"

5 tips to fend off the Polar Vortex blues

The polar vortex returns?

None should dare call it the polar vortex. Who dares, in this instance, loses.

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