Persistent cold temperatures in the Midwest this winter almost completely frozen over many of the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) reported that 88 percent of the Great Lakes were frozen as of mid-February.

The Arctic Oscillation describes simultaneous, geographically “choreographed” shifts in multiple features of the polar vortex: air pressure, temperature, and the location and strength of the jet stream. They all follow the hemisphere-wide oscillation of atmospheric mass back and forth between the Arctic and the middle latitudes, sort of like water sloshing in a bowl.

A few days of unusually cold weather in the U.S. and Canada aren't a sign that a century-or-more trend of rising global surface temperatures has reversed itself. In fact, the cold wasn't even all that widespread for the Northern Hemisphere.

Meteorologists have known for years that the pattern of the polar vortex determines how much cold air escapes from the Arctic and makes its way to the U.S. during the winter. Climate scientists are wondering if a warmer Arctic could explain its odd behavior in recent years.

Natural climate phenomena—the North Atlantic Oscillation & La Niña—can explain much of this winter's temperature patterns across North America.