Zooming Around with Zoe: Explaining the polar jet stream

Zooming Around With Zoe

GREENVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) — Have you ever wondered why sometimes it’s really cold in the winter and other times it feels warm out? It all revolves around the polar jet stream. 

The sun doesn’t heat the whole Earth evenly, which is why the poles are so cold and the equator is so hot. When the two air masses meet, the warm air is lighter and the cold air is heavier, so the hot air rises above the cold air mass. When this happens, it creates a current of air in the upper atmosphere, which we know as the jet stream.

In short, the jet stream is a narrow band of strong winds in the upper atmosphere moving west to east across the entire globe. Since the temperature difference between poles and the equator is the largest in the winter, the jet stream is therefore stronger in the wintertime, and can bring North Carolina huge waves of freezing air. 

But how exactly does that happen? The polar jet stream is usually located in Canada. Sometimes, like in a fast-moving river, the jet stream is smooth and straight, referred to as stable and strong. A strong jet stream keeps cold air from the arctic in the Arctic.  

It can easily become unstable in the winter and buckle, which allows cold air from Canada to stream into the United States. It can dip down all the way to Mexico, and bring temperatures to Eastern North Carolina 20 to 30 degrees below normal. 

Luckily, these bursts of arctic air don’t normally last long, because the jet stream will eventually strengthen and return to its regular position near the US/Canada border. 

Next time you feel that blast of chilly air when you step outside, you can explain exactly why that’s happening … the polar jet stream.

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