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COLUMN: Polar vortex to pump the brakes on spring

CHICAGO, March 14 (Reuters) - A record-setting polar vortex event will breathe one last ounce of life into Northern Hemispheric winter before it is finally laid to rest. But the winter gear can probably stay packed away.

CHICAGO, March 14 (Reuters) - A record-setting polar vortex event will breathe one last ounce of life into Northern Hemispheric winter before it is finally laid to rest. But the winter gear can probably stay packed away.

Over the last few days, strong stratospheric warming has stalled the spinning mass of cold air over the North Pole to a record-slow speed, dismantling the vortex in the process. Not only is the vortex at the weakest levels since at least 1978, but the previous record for weakest March vortex has been crushed ( http://tmsnrt.rs/22fWkcu ).

If it were the dead of winter, this polar vortex breakup could have propelled much of the Northern Hemisphere into a bone-chilling deep freeze, and any winter crops lacking snow cover might have been history.

Chances were very good for this to have happened one month ago. An even stronger stratospheric warming event occurred in early February, but the vortex did not break down as the necessary dynamics were not present. As such, last month was one of the warmest Februarys on record, particularly in Eastern Europe ( http://tmsnrt.rs/1U11KHx ).

In the winter months, the often frigid effects of polar vortex breakup can last up to one month following the event. But the timing of the current polar vortex destabilization is tricky because this is the time of year when the Northern Hemisphere warms and the vortex naturally slows and becomes relatively insignificant until the autumn.

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With astronomical spring less than one week away, the polar vortex will act more like a restraint to spring than a recharge to winter, though the effects will linger through the rest of the month.

BRISK, NOT COLD

Over North America, the polar jet stream has already begun its seasonal shift northward, meaning that the Arctic air will be mostly confined to central and northern Canada. Parts of the United States may experience some cooler temperatures this weekend, but it would be nothing too far out of the ordinary.

The Black Sea region will observe some of the most profound impacts, as temperatures turn seasonably cool for the rest of the month after several weeks of unusually warm weather. But winter wheat regions in western Russia, Ukraine, and the surrounding areas will catch a break ( http://tmsnrt.rs/22g5OVl ).

Since the snowpack is virtually absent over most of the Eurasian region, temperatures will be propped up a few extra degrees, as the presence of snow would act to lower air temperatures. This will significantly reduce the risk of widespread freeze damage to wheat, which becomes more vulnerable as it loses tolerance to cold weather toward the spring.

Localized wheat damage in parts of Russia's Central district cannot be ruled out as low temperatures will flirt with the tolerance threshold. But as a whole, the Northern Hemisphere should escape this historic polar vortex event with both crops and pride intact.

Perhaps the only inconvenience brought on by the polar vortex this time around is that many people will have to wait until at least April to enjoy any unseasonable springtime warmth. But given that winter is not necessarily returning, a slight delay on spring hardly seems worth complaining about.

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By Karen Braun
Karen Braun is a Reuters market analyst. Views expressed are her own.

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