Polar Vortex to Grip Midwest With Extremely Low Temperatures and Deepest Freeze in Decades

The winter storm created blizzard-like conditions in Kaukauna, Wis., on Monday. Officials predict that wind chill readings could plummet to minus 50 degrees in Chicago on Wednesday.
William Glasheen/The Post-Crescent, via Associated Press

Two of the most dreaded words in a Midwestern weather forecast — “polar vortex” — returned this week, promising life-threatening low temperatures that could shatter records and plunge much of the region into its deepest freeze in decades.

Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin declared an emergency and told the National Guard to be ready to help. The University of Notre Dame announced it was closing its northern Indiana campus from Tuesday evening until Thursday afternoon. And in Chicago, city leaders deployed buses as mobile warming centers and offered tips on how to thaw frozen pipes (hair dryers work well, they said, but don’t use an open flame).

“This is right up there with the best of the cold waves, and we’ve had some doozies over the years,” said Tom Skilling, the chief meteorologist at WGN-TV in Chicago, where he has worked for 40 years. Mr. Skilling predicted 72 hours of subzero wind chills and 48 hours of subzero temperatures so low that “we’re going to hear buildings and outdoor objects creaking.”

Forecasters expect Wednesday’s high temperature (yes, the high) to be minus 14 degrees Fahrenheit in Chicago and Minneapolis. If the forecast holds, that would be Chicago’s lowest high temperature for a single day since officials began keeping records. An expected low of minus 22 was expected to approach, though not surpass, the coldest temperature ever recorded in Chicago. Officials predicted that wind chill readings could plummet to minus 50 in Chicago and minus 60 in Minneapolis.

“This is what you would expect when you get into central and northern Canada,” said Brian Hurley, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

The vortex, a brutal mass of cold air within strong bands of circulating winds, has spread southward from its normal location near the North Pole in recent weeks, bringing arctic weather to the middle of the United States. Such weather events have become more common in recent years; scientists are not sure why, but some suspect a link to climate change.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel made comparisons on Monday to the winter of 2013-14, when the city was plagued by frigid weather and referred to as “Chiberia,” the result of another polar vortex. This year’s vortex could bring even lower temperatures.

“All hands are on deck,” Mr. Emanuel said, adding that he was coordinating with state officials to assist homeless people who live alongside highways.

Across the region, social service agencies and local governments raced to warn older and disabled residents and homeless people about the approaching weather. Officials in South Bend, Ind., promised to open a warming center. In Peoria, Ill., landlords were warned to provide heat to tenants. And in Minnesota, groups mobilized to encourage homeless people to seek shelter.

“The approach to this really bitter cold is for providers to be very, very flexible and open and willing,” said Christine Michels, a senior program director for Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which operates shelters.

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SOURCE: New York Times, Mitch Smith