OMAHA — Midwesterners seeking a warmer locale Wednesday could have gone almost anywhere else: Antarctica, Siberia, Everest Base Camp. Even Mars.
All of the above enjoyed balmier temperatures at times Wednesday than parts of Chicago, Indianapolis, Minneapolis and other heartland cities gripped by the polar vortex, the Arctic cold front that brought dangerously frigid weather and gusty winds to the Upper Midwest and Northeast.
How cold was it? In Norris Camp, Minnesota, the temperature hit minus 48 — without wind chill. The town of Melrose, Massachusetts, recorded a low of minus 38. Some towns saw historic cold, including Waterloo, Iowa, which broke a 1951 record for Jan. 30 by registering minus 24, according to unofficial National Weather Service figures.
Governors in three states — Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin — declared states of emergency and urged residents to hunker down if possible in the face of bitter cold described by forecasters as life-threatening.
“Stay inside if you can,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told residents. “Check on vulnerable neighbors and try to make sure that if you see someone in need, that you take action and connect them with 211.”
In Chicago, WGN9 meteorologist Tom Skilling declared it the second-coldest day in city history with a high of 10 below and a low of 24 below, producing an average of minus 17, one-degree warmer than Dec. 25, 1983, which averaged 18 below zero.
“To say it’s brutal out there is an understatement,” Mr. Skilling said in his post. “Lake Michigan took on the appearance of a boiling cauldron as air of minus 20 degrees and colder made contact with water sitting just above the freezing level. I’ve lived here 40 years and never until today have never seen a more spectacular display of “‘sea smoke.’”
More records were expected to be set overnight. “Temperatures will crash quickly overnight in the Midwest,” tweeted meteorologist Ryan Maue. “Potential still legit for all-time record lows.”
With wind chill, some areas saw temperatures plunge into the negative 50s and even 60s. The lowest reported wind-chill number came near Ponsford, Minnesota, which registered minus 66 degrees.
The weather was definitely colder than Antarctica, where the forecast was in the mid-teens, and Siberia, which saw a high of 4 degrees but was it really colder than Mars?
The Mars rover reported high temperatures Sunday at the Gale Crater of 19 degrees — although the low was expected to hit negative 99 — and compared it to the same-day 4-degree low for Minneapolis.
University of Georgia atmospheric-sciences professor Marshall Shepherd said in his Forbes column that it was a “cute” description, adding, “I suppose it is even technically correct for some snapshot measurements of temperature on Mars.”
Everyday life for many Midwesterners came to a standstill as hundreds of schools closed; more than 2,000 flights were canceled, and major attractions such as zoos and museums shut down, as did the Michigan and Minnesota state legislatures.
The U.S. Postal Service’s motto says “neither snow nor rain nor heat” can stop the mail, but life-threatening cold is another story. Deliveries in 10 states were entirely or partially suspended: Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.
For Chicago theatergoers, the cold was particularly bitter, forcing the Broadway show “Hamilton” to cancel its Wednesday performances.
Social media was filled with videos of frosty scientific experiments such as beer cans exploding in the cold air and poured boiling water freezing before hitting the ground.
About 139 million people were affected by wild-chill advisories or wind-chill warnings as 22 states recorded below-zero temperatures, from Montana in the West to New York in the East, as a result of the surge of polar air, the National Weather Service reported.
The Arctic cold front also brought grim news: Seven deaths were linked to the dangerous lows. At the University of Iowa in Iowa City, 18-year-old Gerald Belz died after he was found outside an academic building just before 3 a.m., when the wind-chill was negative 51 degrees, according to KCRG-TV.
The American Red Cross was forced to cancel 370 blood drives as a result of the cold. Many zoos closed, but a privately owned zebra died on a farm in Carroll County, Indiana, after its back hooves got stuck in fencing, according to WLFI-TV.
No weather event would be complete without a climate-change debate, this one ignited by President Trump, who tweeted Monday, “What the hell is going on with Global Warming? Please come back fast, we need you!”
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a potential 2020 presidential contender, responded Wednesday by blaming the polar vortex on global warming, saying, “Climate change makes extreme weather more frequent and more intense.”
In the middle were scientists who argued that the cold front neither proved nor disproved whether atmospheric emissions were driving the frigid temperatures.
“Media narratives can take on a life of their own during weather events,” tweeted Mr. Maue. “In order to rebut Trump’s troll-job Tweets, media has settled on a narrative that this extreme cold is caused by climate change & we are going to see more of it. So far, evidence for that theory is flimsy.”
Roger A. Pielke Sr., senior research scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, said the polar vortex isn’t a new phenomenon. The counter-clockwise whirlpool of air keeps colder air near the poles, but the boundaries sometimes dip southward.
“These southward movements of part of the vortex have always occurred,” Mr. Pielke said. “With respect to climate, a strong polar vortex occurs when it is particularly cold at higher latitudes. The colder the troposphere at the higher latitudes, the stronger is the polar jet stream. So if anything, these extreme Arctic outbreaks suggest global warming has little effect on them.”
Many schools were expected to remain closed Thursday, but the Arctic blast was expected to retreat by Friday, bringing temperatures in the 30s and 40s to the Midwest by the weekend.
• The article is based in part on wires reports.