A deadly deep freeze has swept across the US Midwest, plunging temperatures to lower than those in Antarctica and prompting authorities to warn of almost instant frostbite.
According to ABC News “As of Wednesday morning local time, more than seven in 10 Americans were experiencing below-freezing conditions, and the icy weather triggered widespread closures of schools and businesses and the cancelling of more than 1,600 flights from Chicago.
At least six deaths have been linked so far to the weather system, and authorities urged people to stay inside during what experts have described as “the coldest air in a generation”.
The bitter cold is the result of a split in the polar vortex that allowed temperatures to drop much farther south than normal.
That meant temperatures in parts of the Midwest were lower than in Antarctica, where the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station hit -31.7 degrees Celsius — slightly warmer than North Dakota’s -35C and Minneapolis’ -32C, according to the National Weather Service.
Snowploughs were idled overnight because of the cold in south-western Minnesota, where temperatures dropped to -34C. In Chicago, temperatures were still dropping after plunging early on Wednesday to -28C, breaking the day’s previous record low set in 1966 — and colder than the weather in Barrow, Alaska, the most northern town in the US.
And that does not include wind chill, which in northern Illinois made the air feel as cold as -49.4C. The National Weather Service warned a wind chill of -45C “can lead to frostbite on exposed skin in as little as five minutes”.
Officials throughout the region were focused on protecting vulnerable people from the cold, including the homeless, seniors and those living in substandard housing. Some buses were turned into mobile warming shelters to help the homeless in Chicago.
“These [conditions] are actually a public health risk and you need to treat it appropriately,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said.
“They are life-threatening conditions and temperatures.”
Thousands of flights were cancelled at some of the nation’s busiest airports, and the US Postal Service took the rare step of suspending mail delivery across much of the region.
Governors in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan declared emergencies as the worst of the cold threatened on Wednesday.
Dozens of cars have been involved in a series of chain-reaction crashes on icy highways in whiteout conditions, including 27 west of Philadelphia and another 14 near Hamburg.
There was also a 20-car pile-up in New York on the motorway between Buffalo and Rochester.
In Michigan, homeless shelters in Lansing were becoming “overloaded”, Mayor Andy Schor said. They were also filling up in Detroit.
“People don’t want to be out there right now,” said Brennan Ellis, 53, who was staying at the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries.
Hawaii native Charles Henry, 54, was staying at a shelter in St Paul, Minnesota, and said he was grateful to have a place to stay out of the cold.
“That wind chill out there is not even a joke,” he said. “I feel sorry for anybody that has to stay outside.”
Shelters, churches and city departments in Detroit worked together to help get vulnerable people out of the cold, offering the message to those who refused help that “you’re going to freeze or lose a limb”, said Terra DeFoe, a senior adviser to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.
The cold weather was even affecting beer deliveries, with a pair of western Wisconsin distributors saying they would delay or suspend shipments for fear beer would freeze in their trucks.