10 Questions for Walter Robinson, Polar Vortex Pioneer

Don’t blame the polar vortex for this winter’s cold weather woes.

Walter RobinsonWalter Robinson knows cold. After graduating from college with a degree in physics, he spent a year in Antarctica working with particle detectors that hunt for cosmic rays. Cooped up at McMurdo Research Station as sub-zero temperatures hovered outside, he picked up a textbook on atmospheric dynamics—and the concepts clicked. He decided to become a meteorologist and is now a professor of marine, earth, and atmospheric sciences at North Carolina State University.

One of Robinson’s research interests is the polar vortex—the scapegoat for the sub-zero misery experienced by the eastern half of the U.S. this winter. In 2001, he became one of the first scientists to show that breakdowns in the polar vortex can cause cold weather at the earth’s surface.

Robinson recently chatted with Science Friday about how he got interested in science, his love for George Orwell and country dances, and why we actually can’t blame the polar vortex for this winter’s frigid weather.

Science Friday: When did you know that you wanted to be a scientist?
Walter Robinson: When I was probably still in elementary school, I was thinking of becoming an astronomer. I had a typical nerdy kid’s interest in astronomy, which led me to physics in the first place. Scientific American was always around the house, and I had a subscription to Popular Science.

Who was your favorite science teacher?
The person who got me started was my dad. He really introduced me to science, much more than any particular teacher I can point to. He was an engineer in aerospace electronics.

In college, the guy who influenced me the most was a professor of physics I had named Michael Cohen, at the University of Pennsylvania. [He had been a graduate student and postdoc with Richard Feynman]. He was a bit of a curmudgeon, and he taught the course—it was kind of a feared course—in classical mechanics. It was really tough; I remember failing the first midterm. He wasn’t always a pleasant experience, but he really helped me build problem-solving skills that I’ve drawn on ever since I took that class.

Who is your scientific idol?
Edward Lorenz was the discoverer or the originator of chaos theory [the study of systems where small, almost imperceptible differences grow rapidly over time, leading to very different outcomes]. That paper he wrote, ‘Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow,’ which was published in an atmospheric sciences journal, is the scientific publication about meteorology that’s had the most influence on all the rest of science by far. People have discovered chaotic systems all over physics and biology and chemistry. So that’s really fundamental stuff, but all his papers—many of which are much more strictly meteorological—contain just incredible insights. And they’re beautifully written, which is unusual in science. He was also a very modest person, a nice guy.

What do you like to read?
I think I’ve read all of George Orwell, including the ones that are less frequently read. I’m a big fan. I love his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’—I’m always inflicting it on my students. That short, sort of autobiographical essay, ‘Shooting an Elephant,’ is amazing. I love Homage to Catalonia, his description of the Spanish Civil War. He was maybe the most astute observer of what was going on in the 20th century. Right now I’m re-reading Middlemarch, by George Eliot. That’s on my iPad.

What do you do when you’re not doing science?
My wife is a musician, and I’m an amateur musician. What we do together is play music for English country dances. These are like 17th, 18th-century tunes, and she plays flute and keyboards; I play recorders. I also play recorders for a lot of Renaissance music.

What’s one thing you wish everybody could understand about climate science?
The climate system or the atmosphere is incredibly variable. We’ve had a couple of years of seemingly anomalous weather, and there have been some very different storms, like [Superstorm] Sandy. There’s been a tendency to say ‘This is something new, attributable to global warming and climate change.’ While global warming is real, and it’s happening, the atmosphere has an incredible capacity to do very interesting things on its own without us doing anything to it.

What’s the one place you want to see before global warming changes it too much?
I was there when I was a kid, but I’d like to go back to Glacier National Park in Montana. I didn’t hike up to the glaciers at the time. They’re definitely retreating.

What is the polar vortex and how does it affect weather?
The polar vortex is this huge ring or disk of circulating air in earth’s stratosphere, 2,500 miles in diameter. [The stratosphere is a layer of the atmosphere that starts about 10 miles from earth’s surface.] Its temperature is about -100 degrees Fahrenheit. At the edge of the vortex is a jet of very strong winds—you know, 100 mph kind of winds. You could think of it like a corral of cold air.

In some years, strong planetary waves of wind and pressure move through the air from the lower atmosphere into the stratosphere and disrupt the vortex. This disruption disturbs the circumpolar circulation throughout the atmosphere, all the way down to the ground, allowing cold air to spill out from the Arctic into lower latitudes. Last winter was a classic vortex breakdown year. The vortex actually split apart. We got cold air and we got cold snaps.

This winter, the vortex did not break down. It got sort of oval shaped and sort of stretched, but it didn’t break down. The lower atmosphere can give you a cold snap with a perfectly happy or intact or undisturbed stratosphere. A cold snap is not a polar vortex. [The vortex does break down each spring, however, but in this case, it’s characterized more by warm air intruding over the pole rather than cold air breaking out into lower latitudes.]

What’s the most astounding fact about the weather, in your opinion?
That it is actually predictable at all. A lot of the reason is because we’re on a planet that rotates pretty quickly. The force from the Coriolis effect [an apparent force that comes about because the earth is rotating beneath us] allows weather patterns to persist and be predictable. Now we have skillful weather forecasts that go out a week or even 10 days. That’s pretty amazing.

What upcoming research are you most excited about?
What we’re working on now is how storm tracks [or paths] change with respect to climate change. We really want to get into the issue of what that does for persistent extreme weather.

A lot of things have been said in the media about what we call blocking patterns [atmospheric features that cause surrounding areas to have the same weather for extended periods of time], which disrupt the jet stream, which is what storm tracks mostly follow. The blocking patterns don’t require global warming, so the question is, does climate change affect the frequency of blocks, where they occur, and how severe they are? Research on blocks is exciting because it follows directly from our work on the storm tracks.

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About Andrew P. Han

Andrew is a New York-based freelance writer. He was Science Friday’s intern during fall 2013.