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Flights canceled, schools closed as sub-zero polar vortex descends on Midwest

Heavy snow and powerful wind created blizzard-like conditions across parts of the Midwest on Monday, prompting officials to cancel about 1,000 flights at Chicago’s airports and close hundreds of schools. But forecasters warned the most dangerous weather is yet to come: frigidly low temperatures that the region hasn’t seen in a quarter century.

Snowplow drivers had trouble keeping up with the snow in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where some areas got as much as 15 inches. Chicago-area commuters woke up to heavy snowfall, with more than 5 inches already on the ground. In Michigan, non-essential government offices were closed, including the Capitol.

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But the snow is only “Part 1, and maybe even the easier part” because temperatures will plunge over the next three days, said Brian Hurley, a meteorologist with the Weather Prediction Center.

Wednesday is expected to be the worst. Wind chills in northern Illinois could fall to negative 55 degrees, which the National Weather Service called “possibly life threatening.” Minnesota temperatures could hit minus 30 degrees with a wind chill of negative 60.

“You’re talking about frostbite and hypothermia issues very quickly, like in a matter of minutes, maybe seconds,” Hurley said.

Cold weather advisories are in effect across a broad swath of the central U.S., from North Dakota to Missouri and spanning into Ohio. Temperatures will be as many as 20 degrees below average in parts of the Upper Great Lakes region and Upper Mississippi Valley, according to the National Weather Service.

Men use blowers to clear the snow from the skating rink in Millennium Park in Chicago.
Men use blowers to clear the snow from the skating rink in Millennium Park in Chicago. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

The unusually frigid weather is attributed to a sudden warming far above the North Pole. A sudden blast of warm air from misplaced Moroccan heat last month made the normally super-chilly air temperatures 20 miles above the North Pole rapidly rise. That split the polar vortex into pieces, which then started to wander, according to Judah Cohen, a winter storm expert for Atmospheric Environmental Research, a commercial firm outside Boston. One of those ‘polar vortex’ pieces is responsible for the sub-zero temperatures across the Midwest this week.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel urged residents to check on their neighbors and take safety precautions. He said city agencies are making sure homeless people are in shelters or offered space in warming buses.

Hundreds of schools were closed across Michigan as road conditions deteriorated, including Eastern Michigan University. The largest public school districts in Wisconsin and Minnesota also were among those closed, including districts in Milwaukee and St. Paul. Minneapolis Public Schools announced there would be no classes through Wednesday. The cold also prompted officials to close some schools in eastern Iowa, and Chicago Public Schools officials said they were monitoring the weather ahead of Wednesday’s cold snap.

Ice forms on Lake Michigan in Chicago as an arctic blast moves into the Midwest
Ice forms on Lake Michigan in Chicago as an arctic blast moves into the Midwest (Antonio Perez / Associated Press)

In eastern North Dakota, officials issued travel alerts because of blowing snow. The Minnesota State Patrol was responding to scores of spinouts and crashes Monday in the Twin Cities metro area because of snow-covered and icy roads.

Even the fabled “frozen tundra” of Lambeau Field, home to the NFL's Green Bay Packers, wasn't able to withstand the heavy snow and wind that closed hundreds of businesses, schools and government offices in Wisconsin. The stadium said tours, the Packers Hall of Fame and other related businesses were closed Monday.

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