Winter is Coming: Molecular Biology Edition

  The last few weeks have been all about the polar vortex.  As a Biochemist, I thought it would be suitable to incorporate some Molecular Biology.  First, let's do some review!

What is the polar vortex?
  If you think back to high school Biology, you may recall learning about something called the Coriolis effect.  For most of us, high school was a LONG time ago.  So, to refresh our memory, the Coriolis effect is essentially a result of Physics.  Specifically, the Coriolis effect in the context of Earth leads to the wind patterns shown below (courtesy of St. Norbert College Ocean Voyagers Program):


  These wind pattern influence weather across the globe.
  At the end of each pole, there is a polar vortex.  The continuous cycling of the vortex is from the Coriolis effect.  In addition, the low pressure at these poles causes the winters to be abnormally harsh, giving the poles their cold reputations [1].
  Those of us in the U.S. are well aware of the freakishly cold temperatures as of late.  We've witnessed everything from the Great Lakes freezing over to icicles in Florida just within this last week.  This brief experience of harsh polar conditions is a result of the polar vortex from the North Pole temporarily shifting over to North America (for more information, click here).

What is Molecular Biology?
  In my October 2013 post, I introduced Biochemistry.  Biochemistry is a subset of Molecular Biology.  Imagine Molecular Biology as a tree and Biochemistry as a branch of that tree.  Biology acts as the nutrients and water that keeps the tree, Molecular Biology, living (pun intended).
  As a refresher, Molecular Biology is understanding Biology, the study of life, in scope of molecules.  If you look at your hand, for example, think of Molecular Biology as understanding all the invisible compounds and chemicals interacting in the cells that make up your hand, allowing your hand to function.  That is Molecular Biology in a nutshell.

What does the Molecular Biology have to do with the polar vortex?
 Alright folks, here's where things get interesting.  Remember Kenny's "Winter is coming. Microbe edition." ?  How about Sara's "Winter is Coming: Marine Intertidal Edition" ?  The polar vortex accounts for the content described for both of these, and Molecular Biology too, but how?  
  Everyone seems to know that water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O) and that air is two oxygen atoms (O2).  At different temperatures and pressures, these common compounds change phases (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons):


  Combine the properties of common compounds such as H2O (eg any body of liquid water) and O2 (the gaseous air we breathe) with the polar vortex taking a location vacation from the North Pole to North America, and you'll quickly start seeing Great Lakes freezing over and icicles in Florida.  Taking the context of Molecular Biology and the polar vortex a little further, it's easier to understand how kisses of death or snowflake formation may occur.
  There you have it - the polar vortex explained from a molecular point of view!

A frozen Lake Michigan (courtesy of NOAA)

A frozen Lake Michigan (courtesy of NOAA)

Icicles cover a palm tree in Lakeland, Florida (courtesy of CBSNews)

Icicles cover a palm tree in Lakeland, Florida (courtesy of CBSNews)


1. V. Lynn Harvey, R. Bradley Pierce, T. Duncan Fairlie, and Matthew H. Hitchman (2002). "A climatology of stratospheric polar vortices and anticyclones". Journal of Geophysical Research (American Geophysical Union) 107.

Questions?  Comments?  Confusions?