The eastern half of the United States and Canada plunged into double-digit sub-zero temperatures yesterday as a cold whirlpool of dense air known as a “polar vortex” threatened to break decades-old records and freeze exposed skin within minutes.
The bitter weather comes after a heavy snowstorm hit much of the region last week.
Schools in Chicago and other Midwest cities were closed, some businesses shut down and people were warned to stay indoors.
More than 3,000 flights were cancelled yesterday at airports throughout the US.
“It’s just a dangerous cold,” said a National Weather Service spokesman. “Cold temperatures and gusty winds associated with an Arctic airmass will continue dangerously cold wind chills as far south as Brownsville, Texas and central Florida.”
Lows of -18C were recorded in Chicago, St Louis and Indianapolis. The last time Chicago was this cold was February 1996, according to Accuweather.
The forecast ahead remains extreme: -35C in North Dakota, and -26C in Minneapolis, Indianapolis and Chicago. Wind chills could drop into the -45 to -50C bracket. However, warmer temperatures are likely to appear later in the week.
Up to 2ft of snow has already covered areas of Canada and the north-eastern US, while the cold has been blamed for 16 deaths across the continent.
In New York, the temperature was expected to drop sharply from about 11C to about -12C overnight as the band of Arctic air moved in.
Experts warned that frostbite and hypothermia can set in within minutes.
“I have seen frostbite occur through clothing,” said Douglas Brunette, an emergency room doctor in Minneapolis. “It’s not enough just to be covered. You need clothes made for the elements. You need to repel the wind.”
The Indianapolis mayor upgraded the city’s travel emergency level to “red,” making it illegal for anyone to drive except in emergencies or seeking shelter. The last time the city issued such a travel warning was 1978.
Elnur Toktombetov, a Chicago taxi driver, said that, an hour into his shift, his cab’s windows were coated with ice on the inside. Many cities came to a virtual standstill. Schools were shut in the states of Minnesota and Oklahoma, and in Kansas City. Offices and schools were closed in Indianapolis and businesses were asked to close at least until noon, because of low temperatures and wind-chill.
Government offices and courts in several states closed and southern states were bracing for possible record cold temperatures. Tennessee declared a state of emergency following forecasts of the region’s coldest temperatures since 1994.
The cold was also bad news for farmers. With two freezing nights ahead, Louisiana citrus farmers warned they could lose any fruit they cannot pick in time, while ranchers in South Dakota were keeping an eye on cattle, as calves were being born in the life-threatening cold.