The Polar Vortex Just Set a Flurry of Low-Temperature Records

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The polar vortex has shown no mercy this week. Heaters are on full blast. Ski masks have surfaced from that drawer of random gear. Fingers and noses are in pain. It sucks here in New York City, but that’s nothing compared to the Midwest, where temperatures have been shattering records across the board.

Pittsburgh slumped to 2 degrees below zero Wednesday. Its previous record for January 30 was a single degree below zero in 1934. No thanks. Chicago saw a record breaker for January 30, too: -16 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded at O’Hare Airport on Wednesday, a degree lower than its last record, set in 1996. The city’s all-time low of -27 degrees was set on January 20, 1985.

The Quad Cities area of Illinois, near southeastern Iowa, saw -31 degrees Fahrenheit at 3 a.m. Thursday. Its previous record was -28 degrees, according to this tweet from a local meteorologist. The nearby city of Moline close to the Iowa border set an all-time low of 33 degrees below zero Thursday morning, per the Washington Post. Mt. Carroll was down to -38, which may be a new all-time record low for the state of Illinois, according to the National Weather Service of Chicago.


Meanwhile, Appleton, Wisconsin, dropped to a new daily low Thursday morning: -26 degrees Fahrenheit, down from -22 degrees Fahrenheit on January 31, 1996. So did the state capital, Madison, which broke the daily record Thursday for the same drop in temperature as Appleton. Milwaukee was a bit warmer at 23 below zero Thursday morning, but its last record of -15 degrees was set back in 1899.

Norris Camp in northwestern Minnesota had it the worst Wednesday, where temperatures dropped to -48 degrees, per the Post. The city of International Falls in Minnesota was almost as bad on Thursday: -45 degrees. Its previous record was -35 degrees in 1996.


These places will have a special place in history when Polar Vortex 2019 goes down in the books. The wind should have less of a bite by Thursday afternoon, and the weekend will bring everyone some major relief as temperatures finally inch above freezing. That’s still pretty cold, though—and the homeless people who might’ve benefited from additional resources will now lose them with the end of the brutal cold.


None of this cold weather, of course, means that global warming isn’t real (as the president loves to say). It’s a result of Arctic air making its way south after some rapid warming in the stratosphere earlier this month. The destabilization of the jet stream that moves such polar vortexes around could be a result of climate change, but scientists are still trying to figure out that one out.

“It’s not universally accepted, but there may be some elements of climate change in the mix,” Bob Henson, a meteorologist and writer at Weather Underground, told Earther.


The fact that much of the Midwest received some snow before the vortex arrived didn’t help keep the cold away either, Henson explained. This fresh snow helped keep the air cool. The strong winds helped push the vortex quickly through and avoid any warming that usually happens as these disruptions make their way south. All this contributed to this record cold, but as Henson told Earther, “The polar vortex was the big enchilada in the mix.”