Polar vortex delivers Arctic blast to US Midwest, bringing record-setting cold

A blast of arctic-chilled air from the polar vortex brought dangerous, record-setting cold to a wide swath of the eastern United States on Tuesday.
A cyclist passes through heavy frost in Nokomis parkway, Minneapolis, as temperatures in the area dipped below freezing overnight in Minnesota on Jan 29, 2019.
A cyclist passes through heavy frost in Nokomis parkway, Minneapolis, as temperatures in the area dipped below freezing overnight in Minnesota on Jan 29, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

CHICAGO (REUTERS) - A blast of Arctic air from the polar vortex brought dangerous, bone-chilling cold to a wide swathe of the United States on Tuesday (Jan 29), stretching from the Dakotas through Maine, with snow expected as far south as Alabama and Georgia. 

The Midwest was the hardest-hit region, as temperatures plunged below -18 deg C. By nightfall, the mercury was hovering at -18 deg C in Chicago, -14 deg C in Detroit and -29 deg C in Minneapolis.

Local television pictures showed the Chicago River and Lake Michigan filled with chunks of ice. 

The brutal blast known as the polar vortex is a stream of cold air that spins around the stratosphere over the North Pole, but whose current has been disrupted and is now pushing south into the US.

Officials warned Chicago residents, accustomed to chilling winters, to expect an unusually deep and dangerous freeze. Even the city’s supply of its signature deep-dish pizza was affected: The Lou Malnati’s chain announced it would stop taking delivery orders at 8pm on Tuesday.

“This could possibly be history-making,” said Mr Ricky Castro, a National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologist in Romeoville, Illinois. 

As much as 60cm of snow was forecast in Wisconsin, and 15cm in Illinois. Snow was expected through Wednesday from the Great Lakes region into New England.

 

Some Chicago residents found warmth inside the Harold Washington Library Centre, which planned to stay open on Wednesday. 

Mr Gilbert Rothschild, 79, walked through a corridor wearing three sweaters and an undershirt underneath his parka.

“The more layers, the more you’re insulated,” he said. 

Mr Rothschild, the president of a liquor retailer, said he planned on keeping his stores open on Wednesday, figuring customers who were not working might want to pick up something to keep them feeling warm at home.

 
 
 

FROSTBITE WITHIN 10 MINUTES

Many Midwest cities opened warming shelters. Regional governments closed hundreds of schools and airlines cancelled more than 2,000 flights, according to the Flightaware flight tracking website. Many had been destined for Atlanta, where the National Football League’s Super Bowl will take place on Sunday.

Ms Amy Patterson, a vice-president at the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee, said there would still be time for fans to fly to Atlanta for the game, with the NWS forecasting a high of a balmy 14 deg C on Sunday.

A low of -23 deg C was forecast in Chicago and elsewhere in northern Illinois on Wednesday. But with the wind chill factored in, temperatures will feel as low as -46 deg C through Thursday, the NWS reported.

Temperatures could reach lows of -34 deg C to -40 deg C in parts of the Northern Plains and Great Lakes on Wednesday, the NWS said. 

The freezing weather may have killed a man in Rochester, Minnesota, who was found dead outside his home on Sunday (Jan 27), according to a report by WCCO, a local CBS affiliate. Rochester police officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr Jim Hayes, a NWS meteorologist, warned that frostbite was possible within 10 minutes in the intense cold.

ZOO CLOSED

For many across the region, life ground to a halt.

In Chicago, home to the nation’s third-largest school system, officials plan to cancel classes for all 360,000 students on Wednesday due to the weather. Detroit also said all public schools would close, and Michigan State University said it would suspend classes, only the seventh time it has done so because of weather since 1855. 

The Chicago Zoological Society said it would shut Brookfield Zoo for only the fourth time in its 85-year history on Tuesday and Wednesday. 

According to the NWS, the coldest recorded temperature in Chicago was -33 deg C on Jan 20, 1985. 

Officials in Des Moines, Iowa, opened warming shelters, but also suggested residents could stay warm inside shopping malls. 

In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp shut government offices in 35 counties on Tuesday, and schools across parts of the state were also closed. 

In Fargo, North Dakota, where the temperature dropped to -31 deg C, Mr Dan Hallock, an advertising executive, marvelled that people were still working outside as he bought coffee.

“The garbage men of Fargo have my utmost respect,” he said.