This week, America suffered through a polar vortex that brought bitter, deadly, record-breaking cold to the upper Midwest.
Even Hell, Michigan froze over.
The sub-zero temperatures have reportedly claimed several lives and caused power outages, natural gas shortages, and perilous driving conditions, all the while inspiring unique efforts to keep things running in Midwestern cities.
The cold has shattered temperature records across the United States. Mason City, Iowa hit a record low of -28; nearby Albert Lea, Minnesota bottomed out at -29, with wind chills as low as the -50s. Rockford, Illinois broke its all-time cold record at -31, as did Moline (-33), Cedar Rapids, Iowa (-30), Mather, Wisconsin (-43), and Cotton, Minnesota (-56). Ponsford, Minnesota reportedly suffered a chilling -66 degrees.
“We have run out of colors on the map, folks,” one local meteorologist tweeted. “This is not a joke.”
Chicago (now #Chiberia) faced its coldest Jan. 31 on record, with temperatures dipping to -21. The previous record, set in 1985, was only (only!) -12. The city is now so cold that steam has begun rising off Lake Michigan and the semi-frozen Chicago River—a phenomenon which only occurs when the air is dramatically colder than the water below.
Even cities that haven’t broken temperature records are perilously cold. By Thursday morning, 11 states recorded temperatures colder than the northernmost point of Alaska, and 75 percent of the U.S. experienced sub-freezing weather.
Cold Enough to Kill Tissue and Damage Lungs
With temperatures like those, meteorologists and doctors alike warn against spending any time outdoors, even just a few minutes. States including Wisconsin and Michigan have declared emergencies. Many more have shuttered government offices, and schools in states including Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, and Missouri have canceled classes until the bitter cold subsides.
That’s in part because, as The Daily Beast previously reported, it only takes 60 seconds to get frostbite in hyper-cold weather. Although just a few moments outdoors won’t lead to long-term damage in most cases, 30 minutes of exposure could cause severe tissue death.
That’s not all. On Tuesday, the National Weather Service warned Chicago residents against talking—or even breathing too deeply—if they have to be outside, because the “severely cold air” could cause lung damage.
Nine Dead and Counting
The brutal cold has already claimed at least nine lives, according to NBC News. Some of the victims appear to have frozen to death, including an 82-year-old Illinois man who died of hypothermia outside his home, a Milwaukee man who was found frozen in his garage, and a University of Iowa student who was found dead behind a campus building Thursday morning.
Other victims appear to have died from weather-related causes, including a man who was struck by a snowplow at the end of his driveway in Libertyville, Illinois. A 31-year-old man in Des Moines, IA was ejected from his car after he lost control of his vehicle and hit a light pole. A 9-year-old boy was killed when the car he was riding in lost traction and sped into a ditch.
Mass Evacuations of the Homeless
The most vulnerable people are the homeless, and cities have ramped up efforts to get them off the streets and into shelters.
Chicago has established six warming centers, two of which are open 24 hours a day, and provided buses outside of shelters to accommodate anyone who can’t fit inside. One good samaritan even reportedly paid for 70 homeless people to stay in a hotel after one of the group’s propane tanks exploded.
Other cities—including Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Detroit—also increased shelter availability, The New York Times reports. But that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.
“You don’t understand,” one Chicago man told the Times, while trying to raise the $45 he needed for a night in a motel room. “A lot of us don’t go to the shelters because of bedbugs, we don’t go because people steal from you, we don’t go because you can’t even really sleep in the shelter. But my feet are cold, and these clothes are all I’ve got.”
Trains, Planes, and Even the Postal Service Are Frozen
Temperatures are so cold that they’re making steel brittle. Amtrak has canceled service in many parts of the U.S., on Wednesday canceling all 55 of its trains to and from Chicago. In Maryland, a rail broke in three places due to extreme cold weather conditions. Minnesota’s light rail system faced a similar problem, suffering two track fractures in two days.
Chicago’s commuter rail has to set tracks on fire to prevent similar fractures.
It’s not much better in the skies: Conde Nast Traveler estimates that 8,000 flights have been canceled this week, due to the difficulty of running ground operations in the sub-freezing cold.
To keep their workers safe, UPS, FedEx, and the Postal Service have either canceled or reduced services in a number of Midwestern states, including Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Illinois.
Thousands of People Without Power—or Heat
More than 13,000 residents of Wisconsin and Iowa experienced power outages on Wednesday, the Washington Post estimated.
Utility companies in some states, including Michigan and Minnesota, are urging residents to lower their thermostats to the mid-60s to help the utilities manage near unprecedented demand for natural gas. Those demands were exacerbated in Michigan, where temperatures are expected to remain in the -30s throughout Thursday, due to a Wednesday fire at a gas compression station in Macomb County. General Motors even halted work at 12 different manufacturing sites in the states to ease the burden on demand.