Chicago was Colder than Antarctica Last Week

Chicago, Freezing
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A Cold Front


How Bad Is It?

For the final week of January leading into the first days of February, the United States was battered with unprecedented and unforgiving winter conditions. A polar vortex – a massive pocket of arctic air pushed outward from the pole by wind and air pressure – ballooned South to envelope many American regions including the Midwest and Northern New England. (1) This treated these regions to some of the harshest cold these states have seen in decades, or ever before. Many weather channel maps didn’t even have a color to indicate how cold these regions would be but rather displayed the projected negative temperatures. Daily life came to a halt, in some cases, in preparation for these dangerous temperatures. The massive chill was expected to affect more than 50 million people living from the Dakotas to approximately western Pennsylvania. (2)

Flights Cancelled

Countrywide, close to 2,000 flights in and out of these regions were canceled last Monday and Tuesday, and nearly 3,000 on Wednesday and Thursday. Public schools in Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Chicago closed completely for one or more days last week. Universities throughout the Midwest, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Chicago, Michigan State University, the University of South Dakota, and many others completely canceled class for the safety of their students and staff. (3) Authorities advised drivers across the states not to travel due to hazardous driving conditions and were busy at work assisting and rescuing drivers stranded along roadways.

How Cold Is It?

With all these measures and more being taken to brace for and survive the intense chill, it begs the question: how cold really is this cold? The Chicago Tribune wrote last Thursday, “ By early Wednesday, temperatures had plunged to 23 below [Fahrenheit]. Thursday morning temperatures will tumble further to minus 27, matching Chicago’s coldest temperature ever recorded on Jan. 20, 1985.” According to a report by the New York Times, wind chill temperatures could be closer to negative 55 degrees. (4)

To put this into perspective, The New York Times also reported McMurdo Station in Antarctica to be in the range of positive 17 degrees Fahrenheit on Wednesday. That puts Chicago at a temperature roughly 40 degrees colder than what is generally assumed to be the coldest place on earth. Now, of course, this is comparing summer in Antarctica to winter in Chicago, but it is still pretty incredible! Cities like Mount Carroll, Illinois experienced even colder conditions. They observed temperatures as low as negative 38 degrees on Thursday morning, though this still remains to be verified by state officials. (5)

What Does This Mean for Chicago?

Conditions this harsh are nothing to be taken lightly. Unfortunately, at least 21 lives have been lost in this last week, and officials claim these deaths were directly related to the extreme cold. (6) The homeless populations of the cities most affected by the freeze were projected to be at incredible risk. A hospital in Chicago even treated at least 50 patients for frostbite. However, due to some incredible efforts made by the communities, non-profit organizations, and some truly selfless individual efforts (7), shelters were made available in many different forms, reducing what might have been a very high number casualties to a measured few.  


At the start of this new week, temperatures are embarking on a much-needed climb. Temperatures are expected to return to positive numbers in the double digits, reaching as high as the low 30s in Chicago. Everyone will still want to bundle up, but the deadly cold is hopefully behind us for now.

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