What I missed in Chicago: the Big Polar Vortex

January 8, 2014 • 12:13 pm

Okay, here’s a joke that my dad told me when I was a kid:

“Jerry, have you ever heard about the kee-kee bird? It lives at the North Pole.”
“No, dad. Why do they call it that?”
“Because it sits up there on the ice and calls, “kee-kee-kee-kee-RIST it’s cold!”

I’ll be here all week folks, but it has been wicked cold in the eastern US these past few days. Chicago has been particularly brutal.

[Note: I’ve taken down the worldwide climate map from yesterday because, as one reader pointed out, the Fahrenheit and Centigrade equivalency scales were so off that I couldn’t discern the temperatures.]

Several readers sent me links to some HuffPo pictures of Chicago (where the temperature with windchill dipped to -40º, both C and F, this week), as well as photos from other sites. I can’t say I’m sorry I wasn’t there: it’s a balmy 10º C (50F) in Dobrzyn. On second thought, I wish I had been there—to take my own photos.

Ice in the lake! We don’t see this every year. Can’t you just see the cold from that plane?

Weather Channel producer Shawn Reynolds tweeted this incredible photo taken by pilot Hank Cain of a tundra-like Chicago, from above.

How cold was it in the Midwest? Colder than on some parts of Mars! Yahoo News reports this:

The town of Embarrass, Minnesota, recorded the lowest temperature in the United States Tuesday at a frigid -37 Celsius (-35 Fahrenheit).

Then there was the wind chill: a calculation that represents how much colder it feels when the blinding gusts hit you in the face.

That dipped as low as -52 Celsius in Montana and was in the -40 to -50 Celsius range in parts of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

That’s cold enough to toss a cup of boiling water into the air and watch it turn into snow before it hits the ground.

The Mars Rover has been sending back daily temperature readings from its tour of the Red Planet ranging from -25 to -31 degrees Celsius (-13 and -24 degrees Fahrenheit).

“To be fair, though, Mars is still way colder,” the Smithsonian Institute wrote in a blog post. “The Curiosity rover is driving around in a crater at, roughly, the equivalent latitude of Venezuela.”

Flickr: akasped

What happened? It was a “polar vortex,” as explained by CNN:

What is a polar vortex? What distinguishes it?

The polar vortex, as it sounds, is circulation of strong, upper-level winds that normally surround the northern pole in a counterclockwise direction — a polar low-pressure system.  These winds tend to keep the bitter cold air locked in the Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. It is not a single storm. On occasion, this vortex can become distorted and dip much farther south than you would normally find it, allowing cold air to spill southward.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

This is the Michigan Avenue Bridge, which I cross regularly. The Chicago River is throwing off steam in the bitter cold:

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Two more photos (by Isaac Silver) from the Mother Nature Network:

An iceberg in Lake Michigan!


This is Chicago, not Antarctica, for crying out loud!


Finally, from Google Earth’s Twi**er feed, the shadows of the skyline on the frozen lake:


42 thoughts on “What I missed in Chicago: the Big Polar Vortex

    1. It’s a balmy 12F in Chicago now, so I opened the back door for the kittehs. They were not amused with the snow or the cold, or me.

  1. Those have to be temperature anomalies, i.e. how colder or warmer relative to the historical average for the day it is. It most definitely wasn’t 15C in northern Labrador on any day in the last at least several months

  2. The good side of this polar vortex is that it will kill of a lot of Emerald Ash Borer larvae. A good thing for our Ash trees.

    1. I think it is a bit late. We had 24 trees on our block cut down in September. The village arborist said there are 6,000 parkway trees that will have to go – and about double that on private property. They tried treating for a couple of years with limited success. So they are cutting them down and replanting.

      I grew up during the Dutch Elm Disease slaughter. We did not learn the dangers of a monoculture from that and it looks like the ash problem may be worse.

      I was at the University of Chicago in the late 1970s not long after all the trees on the Midway Plaisance were cut down. About thirty years later, it looks good again. But very barren for a long time.

  3. About that graph: it must be deviation from the mean or something like that. I don’t believe that Alaska had +20 C. Where I am right now (Cali, Colombia)it sure isn’t 0 C.

  4. Thanks for sharing these gorgeous photos; especially the one with the shadows on the lake. We haven’t even had snow here in Zurich yet 🙂

  5. So is no one else concerned that the pilot was in the back of the plane at low altitude? Freaky! (I will skip the back seat driver reference, wait what, spoiler alert.)

    1. exactly what I was going to post! Glad I read all the way to the bottom. I prefer my pilot in the cockpit, not gawking in back with the rest of us.

    2. Don’t worry – it happens quite often that pilots ride as passengers (“deadheading”) to get into position to work another flight (and especially when there have been schedule disruptions like this week). You are right though, that picture was taken at an altitude where you wouldn’t want to leave the cockpit even to go to he bathroom.

      I’m a pilot and have heard “hey, shouldn’t you be up front?” during a deadhead leg many times!

      1. True. (Oh no, I hope that does not get me bannished!) I know the crew needs to get around. Was just poking a little fun at the picture caption. I wondered if many people even read the captions.

  6. According to all the research I did online with regard to unusual temperature extremes, often at the wrong time of year, I have learnt that this vortex is due to the distortions of the Jet Stream because of warmer temperatures in the Arctic.

    Greenman, my online “friend” of many years is a great resource, both on his blog and on YouTube. He has just posted these explanations:


    1. My brother once told me that Fahrenheit made his scale by picking the coldest day of the winter and setting that to 0 and the hottest of summer and set that to 100.

    2. BTW – I know there is a view that we should use the centigrade scale for weather in the US. I am ok with either C or F. But for weather I like the F scale – it has more degrees over the normal span we live in. So you don’t need the 3,6 C like wetter.com uses!

      1. I have little intuition for human temperatures (to me it is 300K plus or minus hot or cold). But I could fill whole bl*gs with what I know from 4 K -> 4 nK.

      2. I’m inclined to think that global warming deniers would prefer to use Celsius degrees in quantifying temperature increases, as opposed to Fahrenheit increases [(9/5)C].

  7. Jerry, I hope you left an electric blanket out on your windowsill for your squirrels!

    In one of the brutal winters back in the late 70s, WLS radio did some “man-on-the-street” interviews, asking people, “What do you think the coldest place in Chicago is?” They quit doing it after the first five people questioned answered, “Right HERE.”

  8. Regarding ice on Lake Michigan – lack of ice cover in the winter on the Great Lakes leads to greater evaporation and lower water levels. WBEZ did a story about a year ago:

    A good resource on the Great Lakes and water levels –

    Many first time visitors to Chicago are astonished when they see Lake Michigan for the first time. It is so big that it does not equate with what they think of as a “lake”. The Great Lakes are really inland, freshwater seas. Much more pleasant to sail on that the ocean – no cleaning off of salt. Just dry off with a towel.

  9. Back in the early ’80’s, the town where I lived (outside Burlington, VT) was the coldest spot in the nation one day.

    A white van with “National Weather Service” decal pulled into our driveway, and two guys got out and opened the rear door of the van. They drew out the second largest thermometer you have ever seen, – it had to be eight feet tall – rested the bulb carefully just above the ground, and took a measurement. It was (-)38F. A couple hours after that, we made the news.

  10. For doing approximate math in one’s head, you can use the following for Fahrenheit / Celsius conversion:

    F = 2C + 30

    It doesn’t give a precise answer but it will let you know if you need a jacket before heading outdoors.

  11. Some misunderstandings about the polar vortex cleared up here –

    This was not the vortex over the midwest USA – it was polar air brought south by a weakening of the vortex which circles the arctic.

  12. Sample newspaper headlines for 13 Jan 1982: “Brutal Cold Wave Leaves 102 Dead”, “Winter Freeze Devastates Crops Across Florida”, etc. Taking Atlanta as an example, the low temperature was +6 F a few days ago, in 1963 it got down to -2 and in 1985 it fell to -8 F. The “big cold wave of 2014″ was just a brief repeat of what was commonplace a few years back. There were practically no all-time temperature records broken this time, despite the hype of weathermen.

Leave a Reply