Why the Polar Vortex is Part of a Changing Climate


Recent temperatures during the “Polar Vortex” in Chicago left an arctic fog crawling over Lake Michigan, and those who were able to, sequestered in the safety and warmth of their homes as dangerously cold weather hit on a Sunday night through Tuesday afternoon. More incredible photos via Huffington Post.

A warmed up Arctic caused a jet stream of frigid air to migrate further south than usual. The reason is because the jet stream’s direction is influenced by the degree of difference in temperature between the equator and the poles. As the difference between these two locations has lessened over the years, the trajectory of this East-West weather delivery service has changed, and weakened in fidelity to a straight path. For an excellent explanation of the jet steam’s behavior, read about Jennifer Francis’ research on Grist, “Why The Arctic is Drunk Right Now.”

There is still much debate on the issue of global warming, so we think it’s important for us to weigh in, especially while such an unusual weather event (which we’re likely to see more of in the coming years) is still fresh in our consciousnesses.

The media oscillates between “global warming” and “climate change” (the latter an almost charmingly docile and broad terminology for what is shaking things up across the globe in a big way). Though these two terms refer to the same sets of changes—that human activity is slowly increasing (warming) the global average temperature of the earth—warming tends to resonate most with people when its to do with local weather extremes that are, well, warm.

When we were baking in the afternoon sun this summer, attempting to cool ourselves off in our AC-less homes, global warming felt a lot more tangible.

The incredibly mild winter we had a couple years ago, where we actually sipped margaritas on Big Star’s outdoor patio, also fit into our perceptions of global warming quite neatly. But “Chiberia”? Not so much.

Climate change is a better suited term to what we are experiencing, and it will create fewer false expectations. As the world’s global average temperature rises (which is made up of the composite temperatures of everywhere on earth) things will not simply warm up, as we are dealing with delicate weather systems, wind patterns and ocean currents that all have effects on their neighbors. As with the warming of the Arctic and this roguish jet steam, weather events will simply be less predictable, and more extreme as water melts faster. Since warmer air holds more moisture, more precipitation and extreme weather events are also forecasted.

One way we can accommodate a changing future (instead of pretending it’s not here, or, worse, watching Fox News) is by designing our buildings and homes intelligently and deliberately for our surroundings instead of as prepackaged one-size-fits-all dwellings that put us at risk.

For instance, peaked roofs are well suited to climates that accumulate a lot of snow, because the snow doesn’t gather there, weigh down the roof and potentially cause a leak or stress on the material. White materials or paint can help reflect heat in extremely hot (and getting hotter) climates.

source: http://www.faconnable.com/en/corporate/blogs/wp-content/blogs.dir/2/files/2011/04/Dura-Vermeer-Floating-Homes.jpg

We can think about the size, shape and material of homes and infrastructure so as to be able to survive rising water levels. “Dutch Architects Plan for a Floating Future,” from NPR covers houses with underwater foundations in Amsterdam, by architects Dura Vermeer.

Another way we can prepare for a changing climate is by doing our part to mitigate damage before it becomes even worse. We can do this by finding ways large and small to cut down on energy usage and increase efficiency. We can construct our homes to last, using high quality, natural materials, often reclaimed from another project, so we can continue developing new designs and carrying out creative visions, but without putting undue (and unsustainable) strain on the earth.

Erie Loft glass walkway

All of our designs at moss, for example, start with asking ourselves how we can increase natural light in any given home or business. While not only benefitting the emotional and mental health of workers and their pets, taking advantage of this wealth of (free) lighting is better for the environment because it means less electricity used to power lamps and overheads, not to mention cutting back on lightbulb waste. The way a building is designed can dramatically affect its amenability to receiving and spreading natural light. For example, in our Erie Loft project, we added a glass walkway (pictured above) in the upstairs portion to continue to filter daylight throughout the space, while still utilizing the height of the apartment to accommodate our clients.


Another strategy we implement to foster energy efficiency is using passive design strategies, as in our Hermitage Passive house addition. We built window overhangs that would allow sun to be blocked in the summer (passively cooling it) and sequester heat in the winter months by passively heating them. Passive design strategies like this, where the system doesn’t require additional inputs and works with natural light and air to create a comfortable indoor environment, help save massively on heating and cooling costs, both to the consumer and the environment.

Jon Stewart has recognized that climate change is real, despite the polar vortex. Even the U.N. has come around and declared human activity the primary culprit. If we make improved design and energy choices now, we can start preparing ourselves for a better future.