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Not Your Average Chill: What Does 'Polar Vortex' Mean?

During the last few bone-chilling weeks, we've been hearing the term "polar vortex" but what does it mean? It sounds like something evil, like out of a horror movie. Every time your evening meteorologist mentions it, you hear the theme music from Jaws playing in your head.

But, in reality, it's not that scary. So before you think that the end of the world is truly approaching, calm your nerves. AccuWeather meteorologists, Dave Samuels and Alyson Hoegg explain the buzz around the media's new favorite buzzword.

Most weather terminology is based on origin and with wintry weather upon most of the United States, the terms "polar" and "arctic" are often associated with much of the recent weather.

"A polar vortex is a swirling mass of air, that is around all the time but usually found around the poles. Recently, different trends in our typical weather pattern have forced it to come down into territories that don't usually see this cold of temperatures," said Samuels.

He recalled, "I've been at AccuWeather since 2001, and I have never seen the Ohio Valley as cold as it was during the last blast of polar air. It was about negative 12 degrees, mid-day, in the Valley and that is a once-in-20-year occurrence."

AccuWeather Meteorologist Alyson Hoegg said, "On the night of Jan. 17, Orlando, Fla., found itself flirting with the freezing mark at 34 F. The next day, the temperature climbed to a high of 56 F when the average for that day is typically 71 F!"

The polar vortex isn't the only word that has set the media on a frenzy, but also different types of fronts have made recent headlines. A current favorite is the term "arctic front."

By definition, a front is known as a line of separation or boundary between two air masses at any one point. Two terms often associated with "fronts" are Pacific cold fronts and Arctic cold fronts.

"An Arctic front is just a fancy term for a cold front which is pretty subjective. It is usually associated with colder temperatures than a particular area is use to," said Samuels.

Hoegg added, "An Arctic front sits between the deep-cold arctic air and the less-cold polar air. Arctic air is the bone-chilling air, while polar air is what is typically experienced across the northern latitudes during winter. Arctic air moves south frequently, but normally does not have the far reaching impact as the polar vortex."

Arctic fronts are what we associate typical winter weather with but when the winter months bring massive amounts of precipitation that's when the term "Pacific cold front" becomes of note.

"Cold temperatures get everyone nervous this time of year and a Pacific front has a lack of cold air behind it so it doesn't pack the same punch. Pacific fronts originate over the ocean so the air is naturally warmer. The air is not as dry and these front are usually the fronts associated with precipitation. Although this kind of front doesn't bring the cold temperatures, impacts are high due to massive amounts of rain it could bring. Los Angeles is known to flood due to these kind of fronts," said Samuels.

In the end Samuels said, "These terms all mean it's going to be cold in one way or another, and they let you know where the cold air is coming from." Simply put, bundle up.

By Staff Writer Jenna Abate