The Polar Vortex Could Bring Life-Threatening Cold to the Midwest Next Week

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If you live in the Midwest, I’m sorry. All signs are pointing toward an extremely dangerous and potentially historic cold snap descending on the region next week thanks to the polar vortex. It will make last week’s dalliance with polar vortex-induced cold look like a beach vacation and could put lives at risk.

Weather models are largely in agreement that very cold air will descend on the Midwest next week. The biggest questions now are just how cold it will get and when the chilliest air will descend.

Cold is already gripping the Midwest. On Friday, Duluth, Minnesota sat at minus-17 degrees Fahrenheit while Chicago was at minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit. The National Weather Service has much of the Upper Midwest blanketed in wind chill watches and warnings, and warns that in Minnesota, wind chills could drop “25 below to as low as 40 below zero” before a slight reprieve on Monday.


This could be just a tune up for what’s to come. The big chill is likely to be ushered in by midweek as the Midwest stares down what could be some of the coldest air anywhere on the planet. Models suggest temperatures could be anywhere from 15-50 degrees Fahrenheit below normal for this time of year. The lower end of that spectrum comes courtesy of an upgrade to the American model, while the oft-praised (but not always right) Euro is predicting the most extreme polar plunge. The exact details may still be in flux, but I feel comfortable saying the weather will either be completely suck, be totally brutal, or cold as balls.

The chill will encircle Lake Michigan with the surrounding states suffering the consequences. Chicago could be a bone-rattling minus-15 degrees Fahrenheit. All of Minnesota could be dealing with temperatures below minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit by midweek. Parts of the Dakotas could be looking at minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit. Add in winds and parts of the Midwest could be facing a wind chill of minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit. Under those conditions, hypothermia can set in within 10 minutes.

That’s why the cold snap poses a particularly huge risk to the homeless. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless conducted its annual survey of people living on the streets as the temperatures plunged on Thursday. Last year’s count put the city’s homeless population at 5,400, though that number is likely much higher according to the group. Despite the risks, local homeless shelters aren’t expecting a big uptick in people looking to get out of the cold, according to the Chicago Tribune.


The major temperature dip is being driven by the polar vortex, which was destabilized earlier this month when the stratosphere—the layer above the lower atmosphere—rapidly warmed in the Arctic. That set off a chain of events where the polar vortex split into chunks and that have savaged the lower latitudes with frigid air and bizarre weather. There was last week’s chill in the Midwest and the Greek freak snow earlier this month. Now the Midwest is set to feel its wrath again.

A few recent avenues of research indicate cold air snaps and weird weather like what we’ve seen the past few winters could be tied to climate change, which is warming the Arctic twice as fast as the rest of the planet. That could lead to a more unstable jet stream, the speedy river of air that normally keeps cold locked up in the high latitudes. It’s an active area of research, but regardless, a few cold snaps do not disprove climate change despite what Twitter trolls may say.