The frigid 'polar vortex' cold snap engulfing the US is so bad it can give people frostbite in 5 minutes

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  • 75% of the continental US population will face below-freezing temperatures this week as a polar vortex hits the region.
  • The US Northeast and Midwest will be worst hit, with Chicago likely getting a high of -14 degrees and a low of -29 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Medical and weather authorities warn that people could get frostbite and hypothermia from as little as five minutes outside.
  • Thousands of flights have also been canceled, with airlines waiving flight change fees to accommodate for the weather.

A dangerous „polar vortex“ weather system is bringing extreme low temperatures to large parts of the US this week, with authorities warning residents about hypothermia and frostbite, thousands of flights canceled, and at least two people dead in connection with the cold.

This week, regions from North Dakota into Missouri, and as far east as Upstate New York, are expected to drop to around 50 degrees below average for late January, The Washington Post reported.

Some 220 million people, or 75% of the continental US population, will face below-freezing temperatures this week, CNN said.

Weather forecasters and doctors have warned that the cold and wind are so intense that they can give people frostbite within five minutes of exposure.

This map shows the worst of the wind chill for the week. Wind chill figures are colder than the actual temperature, adjusted down to reflect that strong wind removes heat much faster than still air.

polar vortex coldest wind chill

The term polar vortex refers to a low-pressure zone in the North Pole that keeps cold air in a polar region separate from areas further south.

Sometimes, that mass of air expands and get pushed south, letting in cold air from the Arctic pour over the US.

This weather phenomenon comes after 2018 became the hottest year on record for the world’s oceans, and the fourth-warmest year on record for the globe, according to Axios science reporter Andrew Freeman.

President Donald Trump attempted to use the cold snap to bring the science of climate change into question.

„What the hell is going on with Global Waming [sic]? Please come back fast, we need you!“ he tweeted. Weather and climate are two different things: Weather on one day doesn’t define overall climate.

Freeman added: „A single cold snap in one part of the world does nothing to invalidate the long-term trends.“

Read more: Trump tweets falsehoods about climate change and cold weather — again

trump reading newspaper maga hat

Under 25s ’never felt this cold before‘

Forecasters predict a high of -14 degrees Fahrenheit (-25 degrees Celsius) in the northern cities of Chicago and Minneapolis on Wednesday, The New York Times reported.

Chicago could see a low of -29 degrees Fahrenheit (-33.9 degrees Celsius), The Washington Post added. This would surpass the all-time record lowest temperature in the city of -27 degrees Fahrenheit, which came on January 20, 1985, according to the National Weather Service.

Wind chills could hit -50 degrees Fahrenheit (-45.6 degrees Celsius) in Chicago and -60 degrees Fahrenheit (-51 degrees Fahrenheit) in Minneapolis that same day, The Times added.

Americans who are 25 or younger will have „never felt this cold before,“ CNN meteorologist Tom Sater said.

polar vortex chicago commute

Frostbite in less than five minutes

Experts say residents could contract frostbite and hypothermia from even very brief exposure to the elements.

Brian Hurley, a meteorologist at the Weather Prediction Center, told The Associated Press (AP): „You’re talking about frostbite and hypothermia issues very quickly, like in a matter of minutes, maybe seconds.“

The lack of blood circulation to hands and feet can cause frostbite. Hypothermia occurs when the body is exposed to extremely cold conditions over a prolonged period, and as a result the body temperature becomes dangerously low.

The National Weather Service’s Chicago office warned that „dangerously cold wind chills could cause frostbite on exposed skin in as little as 5 minutes.“ 

Amanda Jackson, an emergency-room doctor at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, also told the local Channel 3000 news that people with exposed skin could see signs of frostbite — „a tingling sensation and then a throbbing pain“ — in less than five minutes.

Eric Ernest, a doctor at the Nebraska Medicine Emergency Department, told Omaha’s local WOWT 6 News that people could incur frostbite „anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes of exposed skin.“

polar vortex illinois bus shelter

A 22-year-old man in Rochester, Upstate New York, was found dead amid cold temperatures outside his relatives‘ house, to which he didn’t have a key, the local KIMT 3 News reported. Authorities believe he suffered from frostbite and hypothermia, though an autopsy has not yet been carried out.

Police found blood smeared on several doors and footprints that suggested that he fell multiple times. Officers also found clothing near the house, seeming to confirm the hypothermia theory — people in the final stages of hypothermia can feel irrationally hot and take their clothes off.

Two deaths have already been reported in connection with the cold weather this week, CNN said.

snow plane

Classes and flights canceled

Nearly 2,300 flights have already been canceled, with another 11,800 delayed, Reuters reported.

American Airlines, United Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Delta Air Lines, and Spirit Airlines have waived flight change fees from the Midwest and Northeast US to accommodate for the weather, CNBC reported. Southwest Airlines said people can delay their flights from up to two weeks later without having to pay the fare difference.

The city of Peoria, Illinois, closed all public schools and canceled trash collections on Wednesday due to the cold weather and snow.

Public schools in Milwaukee also closed on Tuesday, and in Chicago on Wednesday.

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‚All hands are on deck‘

Chicago has opened community centers, libraries, and police stations as warming centers. Mayor Rahm Emanuel told The New York Times he was working with local officials to help homeless people living alongside highways, adding: „All hands are on deck.“

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Officials in Chicago and Peoria instructed landlords to provide heat to their tenants.

Officials in South Bend, Indiana, also pledged to open a warming center for vulnerable people.

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