Polar Vortex Breaks Records with Dangerously Cold Weather

Minnesota experienced a polar vortex last week from the last half of Tuesday, January 29th through the first half of Thursday, January 31st. With air temperatures in the Twin Cities nearly reaching thirty degrees below zero and wind-chills exceeding fifty below, schools throughout all of Minnesota were cancelled. 

 This weather, while uncommon, is not unique. In 2014 temperatures comparable to those seen last week prompted schools to be closed for several nonconsecutive days. However, this year’s polar vortex recorded some noteworthy cold days. The air temperature Wednesday morning in Minneapolis reached -28° F, a temperature not reached since 1996.  Furthermore, Minneapolis experienced 14 consecutive hours with a wind-chill below -50° F. As if that doesn’t sound bad enough, Minnesota joined six other states including North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois in experiencing temperatures lower than those recorded at the South Pole Station on Wednesday morning (-27° F air temperature). Although Minnesota is well known for being one of the coldest states, there are only 38 days on record that air temperatures in the Twin Cities have dipped below -30° F.

The National Weather Service issued a wind chill warning early in the week for the entire state of Minnesota. They correctly predicted “dangerous wind chills of 45 below to 65 below zero” for the majority of the time between Tuesday evening and Friday morning. Temperatures like these can result in frostbite in as little as 10 minutes. Citizens were implored to remain indoors as much as possible and to cover all skin whenever they ventured outside.

Here at the U of M, classes were cancelled and the University itself was shut down for all of Wednesday. Only necessary personnel were required to come to the campus and most of the services were shut down including the Recreation and Wellness Center, and on-campus child care. University president Eric Kaler sent an email on Tuesday afternoon to notify all students that all classes were cancelled, and that the campus was going to be closed on Wednesday. 

The week began with over half a foot of snow in some areas and most high schools in the metro area were closed due to dangerous driving conditions. Classes were cancelled at the University of Minnesota by some professors as many have long commutes or have children who need a parent to stay home with them. “Snow days” are a far more common occurrence than cold-related cancellations in Minnesota as I can recall having school cancelled due to snow every three or four years on average during my time as a K-12 student in the SE Metro area. “Cold days”, were a far less common occurrence as I only recall one year in which my middle school cancelled school due to extreme cold. 

Although it was hit the hardest, Minnesota was not the only state affected by the severe cold. Over 20 million people in the United States experienced temperatures of 28 degrees below zero over the course of the week. Des Moines, Iowa experienced a low temperature of 20 below zero on Wednesday with a wind chill of 58 below. This set the record for the lowest temperature in Des Moines on every January 30th in recorded history.  Additionally, Chicago received the bulk of media attention from national news services. O’Hare International Airport recorded a wind chill of 49 degrees below zero, which set the record for the coldest January 30th in the city’s history. According to ABC Chicago more than 1800 flights were cancelled due to the cold, affecting a significant number of people.

Chicago was not as cold as many places in Minnesota, as a volunteer observer for the National Weather Service in Cotton, Minnesota recorded an air temperature of 56 degrees below zero. This tied for the fifth coldest temperature ever to be recorded in Minnesota, with the record being held by a location in St. Louis County that recorded a temperature of 60 below in February of 1996. Although significantly warmer, Chicago still received far more media attention than Minnesota. 

The cold weather was extremely dangerous for all people. Frostbite could occur within minutes at those temperatures and any exposed skin posed a risk for those who ventured out into the cold. The weather was especially dangerous to the homeless population and the deadly temperatures had cities scrambling to provide accommodations for all of their citizens to remain indoors. Minnesota set up warming centers in buses, libraries and churches in order to keep the homeless population safe. Chicago released a recommendation to call 311 in order to get information about what places are available to direct people to. It was so cold that a reporter from NBC nightly news threw fashion to the wind as she wore ski goggles during her outdoor report. She cited the risk of the low temperatures freezing one’s corneas and freezing contact lenses to one’s eyes as the reasons for her attire. 

Although very dangerous for all people, the intense cold temperatures may not have been entirely bad. The last time that temperatures were comparable to last week’s the ash trees benefited immensely. In 2014, the polar vortex killed a large percentage of Minnesota’s population of emerald ash borer larvae. According to a study from the Forest Service, temperatures this cold should have killed well over ninety percent of our population of the harmful insect. Other invasive insects such as the brown marmorated stink bug and a species of harmful fruit fly should also experience very high mortality rates, although not as high as that of the emerald ash borer. Extreme colds are therefore not entirely detrimental, as the environment benefits in some ways through the deaths of invasive species.