The big chill: Polar vortex freezes the northern U.S.

Anabel Sanchez

Online Editor


Schools have closed, wet hair freezes within minutes and boiled water turns into ice within seconds.

Mimicking imagery straight out of “Day After Tomorrow”, a phenomenon known as the polar vortex has assaulted the north of the U.S this winter. The blistering cold has caused numerous business and mail services to cease operations, also prompting flight delays.

Judah Cohen, a winter storm expert from Atmospheric and Environmental Research in Massachusetts, explained that the vortex started with misplaced heat from Morocco.

The air above the North Pole, known as the polar vortex, unexpectedly warmed by 158 degrees Fahrenheit. The flow of hot air sweeping from the south caused the sudden temperature change, splitting the polar vortex. The remaining pockets of the vortex were left to drift around.

The U.S. Midwest is the recipient of one of those vortex pockets.

The icy weather might have taken many a winter-hardened citizen by surprise but according to Bernie Rayno, a Senior Meteorologist at, this trend isn’t anything new. “The polar vortex is not a recently discovered phenomenon; in fact, it has been talked about in the meteorological world for decades,” he states.

In fact, the National Weather Service says that in 1977, 1982, 1985 and 1989 there were also unusually cold temperatures caused by polar vortexes. More recently, in 2014, temperatures dropped to -16.6 degrees in Chicago.

The effects of polar vortexes turn peoples’ view of cold weather and location on its head.

Currently, cities like Chicago and Minneapolis have been experiencing morning temperatures ranging from -10 to -27 degrees—colder than other notoriously frosty cities. By 6 a.m. on Jan. 30, Chicago citizens were greeted by a freezing -22 degrees. Meanwhile, in Murmansk, Russia—a city north of the Arctic Circle—it was 35 degrees warmer.

Michigan, especially, has experienced a brutal pummeling.

Grand Rapids, Michigan resident, Vicky Espinosa, who relocated to Michigan three years ago, has been taken aback by the vicious icy blast. “As a non-Michigan native, my perception of it has been amusing to others. It’s scary to me,” she said. “I have never seen anything like this in my life.”

There was even a constraint on natural gas for heating, with Michigan’s Consumers Energy asking its customers to turn the heat down to 65 degrees until Feb. 1. To this, Espinosa commented, “They told us to be prepared a week in advance and to even carry extra blankets or clothing if you wind up stranded at work or on the road.”

As when many phenomena occur, a mixture of offbeat and tragic stories developed.

Amid the freezing temperatures, in Marquette County, Michigan a trident-wielding surfer decided to emerge. Daniel Schetter, better known as “Surfer Dan”, was conducting a surfing session on Lake Superior, despite the temperature being -3 with a windchill of about -30 degrees.

Social media was also flooded with videos of users across the Midwest showing oddities that resulted from the frosty temperatures. Users would boil water and toss it into the air, with the water turning into frosty white flakes. They also demonstrated how t-shirts would freeze stiff outside on their hangers within mere minutes.

The plunging temperatures of the polar vortex have also been responsible for the deaths of at least 21 people. Two of them were students.

On Jan. 30 18-year-old pre-med student Gerald Belz was found unconscious outside his dorm at the University of Iowa in sub-zero temperatures. He was later pronounced dead. Meanwhile, a University of Vermont freshman, 19-year-old Connor Gage, was found in a parking lot in Burlington, dying of what police believe to be exposure to cold.

Espinosa said of the deaths, “If anything, this experience has taught me that people don’t listen. People will still go out. Some even with children.”

The polar vortex has since moved on, heading west over Canada.

Photo courtesy of Scott Olsen/2019 Getty        

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