I. The Polar Vortex
And so it begins….
circling in the polar night
pulling its coldness into itself
building its turning lair in the sky
an icy serpent howling around it
where the sun never shines.
Hot waves rise
from the warming Arctic
confusing the serpent who flies
like a stream of jet through the polar night.
She pauses, reverses her motion.
The castle falls from the sky.
III. The East Wind
Falling falling southward
this broken abode of a beast so cold
shaking out and flexing uncountable limbs.
When it meets the blast of the east wind
that long-haired traveller revels in
his chance to beat the west wind.
IV. The Beast from the East
So many eyes of snow
so many teeth that bite and rend
so many claws that rattle under doors
to bring the chill of the poles biting in.
The beast is born. The beast is born.
The beast is born again.
A few days ago I was out running in a T-shirt. On ‘the last day of winter’ (in meterological terms) I’m back to my winter woollens. Yesterday I woke up to the rare sight of my home town of Penwortham, which is a low-lying suburb near the Ribble estuary, blanketed in snow.
The north west of England has not been hit as badly as places in the east where schools have been closed and transport has been disrupted. Everybody’s talking about the Hollywood-esquely named ‘Beast from the East’ and I don’t think I’m the only one trying to get my head around the polar vortex, the polar night jet, polar vortex weakening, polar vortex breakdown, and the recent phenomenon of the polar vortex splitting due to sudden stratospheric warming.
The science behind it is fascinating, awe-inspiring, and troubling. Before I looked into it I wasn’t aware the polar vortex existed, let alone that it’s strongest in the dead of winter when the North Pole is utterly immersed in darkness, and that it is encircled by the enigmatic polar night jet.
An area of low pressure spinning counter-clockwise over the pole(s) due to the Coriolis effect, its strength and position in the mid to upper troposphere and stratosphere are based on the transfer of heat by the polar jet stream and by oceanic currents. Every year it strengthens and grows higher in winter and breaks down between mid-March and mid-May, issuing in spring.
This year’s breakdown was particularly dramatic due to a sudden stratospheric warming. Last week temperatures in the Arctic rose rapidly by twenty degrees. Waves of warm air rising into the stratosphere caused the polar vortex to reverse, split, and move southward and downward into the troposphere to meet the easterly winds. Thus the Beast was born.
This sudden stratospheric warming has been linked to climate change. The shrinking of Arctic sea ice (which is at ‘a record low for late February at 14.1 million square kilometers’) means more water is exposed, releasing heat into the atmosphere, disrupting the polar jet stream and causing the polar vortex and its encircling polar night jet to reverse and break down. Another factor is changes in the North Atlantic Drift, which flows north from the Gulf Stream.
Thinking back, this is not the first time we’ve experienced ‘freak’ weather around this time of year. In 2013, on the 23rd of March, I recall walking through a blizzard near to Denham Hill knee-deep in snow and seeing a pair of snow men and a snow dog outside Hill Top Farm.
My guess is this was probably caused by a breakdown of the polar vortex too. Perhaps also the cold snap in February 2009 when I was working at Red Lion Farm in Sarratt as a groom and we had to water the horses from the sink in our mobile home because all the taps were frozen.
For the past few years I’ve been aware the seeming arrival of spring is often followed by bitter winds, hail, snow, frost. In this I’ve seen signs of the battle of our Brythonic seasonal gods, Gwyn (Winter) and Gwythyr (Summer), for Creiddylad (a fertility goddess).
Gwythyr defeats Gwyn on May Day when the polar vortex breaks or has already broken down. The ancient Britons saw Calan Mai (1st May) as the beginning of summer and Calan Gaeaf (1st November) as the beginning of winter. Would such weather have surprised them?
What would they have made of the naming of the beast?
The naming of storms is a new phenomenon designed to identify and remember them and to alert people to their dangers. Give something a name, an identity, acknowledge its personhood and immediately it is treated with respect. This is rooted in the old magic of naming.
Our earliest storytellers knew this when they gave names and forms to the forces of nature. Only when they named the gods and the monsters they were not following a catalogue of pre-given names, but responding to revelatory visions whose source was these deities themselves.
In ‘Reading Harvey’s Dark Ecology’ Finnchuill notes that ‘monster’ comes from the Latin word monstrum, ‘a showing of divine portent’. Our Brythonic texts are packed with monsters with hundreds of heads, shimmering scales, and the wind itself is invoked as: ‘a strong creature / with no flesh or bone, / no veins, no blood, / no head, no feet.’
‘The Beast from the East’, unlike the pre-chosen alphabetical names ‘Aileen, Brian, Caroline, Dylan’… (for 2017/2018) at least has a poetic ring to it even if it smacks of ‘Hollywood makeover’. It won’t be forgotten and in coming years I wouldn’t be surprised to see further headlines such as ‘The Return of the Beast’ or ‘The Beast Bites Back Again’.
What does the name reveal about its nature? How might we read its appearance as a portent? In the past people might have seen such a monster as originating from Annwn, the Otherworld. Now instead we follow its tracks from the east to its lair in the dark, cold, abyssal place in the stratosphere from which, with the polar vortex, it has departed and to which it will return. This location, like Annwn, might also be associated with Gwyn, Winter’s King.
In the warming of the Arctic ocean we find man-driven climate change lending strength to Gwythyr. Gwyn strikes back by releasing the beast. Our ‘wacky’ (from WACC – warm Arctic cool continent) weather reflects the balancing measures taken by the seasonal gods which may be less a boyish battle for a maiden than an attempt to save her life on order of the goddess of the earth.
As we continue to pump carbon into the atmosphere and the oceans continue to warm we can expect to see earlier and fiercer appearances of the Beast. With eyes of snow and icy claws and rending teeth it will return again from the East.
Alister Doyle, ‘Wacky weather makes Arctic warmer than parts of Europe’, Reuters
Duncan Middleton, ‘Beast from the East: How the weather got a Hollywood makeover’, BBC News
Finncuill, ‘Reading Harvey’s Dark Ecology’, Pagan Bloggers
Jesse Zhang, ‘Understanding Climate Change: Polar Vortex Weakening’, TedxMileHigh
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
‘Polar Vortex’, Wikipedia
‘Why do hurricanes have names?’, BBC News