Here’s what the polar vortex looks like from NASA’s heat-mapping satellite

Mike Wehner

You don’t have to live in the U.S. Midwest to have heard about the polar vortex, but if you do you’ve no doubt felt its effects. Frigid temperatures are swallowing up many states thanks to a mass of arctic air making its way much farther south than it normally does, and NASA caught a glimpse of it using one of its trusty satellites.

The Aqua satellite, launched way back in 2002, is equipped with an instrument called the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS for short) and it’s capable of producing detailed heat maps over a huge geographical area. NASA used this tool to monitor the change in temperature created by the polar vortex.

The AIRS instrument detects infrared and microwave energy which can then be overlaid on a map to reveal information about weather patterns and overall climate. It’s an incredibly powerful tool that has aided the weather forecasting community in more accurately predicting changes over both the short and long term. In this case it gives us a great visual of what just happened and why.

NASA explains what we’re seeing here:

The lowest temperatures are shown in purple and blue and range from -40 degrees Fahrenheit (also -40 degrees Celsius) to -10 degrees Fahrenheit (-23 degrees Celsius). As the data series progresses, you can see how the coldest purple areas of the air mass scoop down into the U.S.

The temperatures, which brought wind chills to -50 degrees Fahrenheit and even lower in some areas, have caused massive problems for many midwestern states. Schools and businesses have closed for multiple days and the cold snap has also claimed several lives.

The region is expected to gradually warm back up over the next few days and return to temperatures more akin to what we’d expect for late January or early February.

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