Weather Forecast


Brutal cold smashes records in the Midwest

The James J. Versluis ice-breaker tug boat travels through the Chicago River in Chicago on Jan. 30, 2019. Bloomberg photo by Daniel Acker.

Temperatures dove more than 30 degrees below zero Thursday morning, Jan. 31, in the Midwest in this polar vortex outbreak's last gasp, driving wind chills to dangerous levels and clobbering long-standing records.

After a bitter-cold morning with temperatures that sank all the way to minus-48 in northwest Minnesota, with wind chills down to minus-65, the air ostensibly "warmed" Wednesday afternoon, to readings such as minus-18 in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and minus-22 in Rockford, Illinois. But it didn't take long into the late afternoon for the mercury to plummet again to readings well below minus-20, minus-30 and in some locations in north-central Minnesota, minus-40 by Thursday morning.

The cold snap is smashing all-time records in Northern Illinois. Moline hit a new low late Wednesday night - the lowest temperature the city has ever recorded. The weather station at the Moline Quad-City Airport sent a reading of minus-29 degrees at 11:19 p.m., which was enough to break the record, and then continued to drop even further through the early-morning hours Thursday. As of 7 a.m., the lowest temperature Moline had reached was minus-33 degrees, a full five degrees lower than the old record of minus-28 set in 1996.

Rockford, Illinois, hit minus-30 degrees at 6:45 a.m. Central Time, breaking the record of minus-27 set on Jan. 20, 1982.

At the National Weather Service in Duluth, Minnesota, there was "talk of making a run at the state record" before the sun came up, when temperatures would be at their coldest, meteorologist Geoff Grochocinski told The Washington Post. Minnesota's current record low is minus-60, setin 1996 near the city of Tower. The conditions that had to line up for that temperature to occur Thursday morning were a long shot, but not impossible.

According to a news release Wednesday from the Duluth office, "some of the historically favored cold locations in interior northeast Minnesota, and possibly northwest Wisconsin could approach all-time record values."

As of Thursday morning, the Weather Service still thought the record could be possible. It probably would not happen at an official reporting station, which are usually airports, but would likely come in midmorning from one of its cooperative weather observers in the coldest locations in Minnesota.

Another significant record is in jeopardy in Chicago; Thursday morning lows will plummet close to the city's record low temperature of minus-27, set on Jan. 20, 1985. And the state record in Illinois - minus-36 degrees set in Congerville on Jan. 5, 1999 - seemed likely to be broken Thursday morning somewhere in Northern Illinois, west of Chicago.

Norris Camp, in northwestern Minnesota, was the nation's coldest location on Wednesday after temperatures there dropped to minus-48 degrees, measured by an official with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. With winds blowing at 5 to 10 mph, wind chill would have been around minus-65 degrees. Several other locations in Minnesota and North Dakota plunged to dangerous lows, including Warren, Minnesota (minus-47); Lisbon, North Dakota (minus-46); and Park Rapids, Minnesota (minus-42).

Wednesday was the second-coldest day in Chicago's history. The maximum temperature, minus-10, was set just after midnight, then the mercury dropped to minus-24 later in the morning. The combination of those extremes results in a daily average of minus-17, just short of Dec. 24, 1983, when the average temperature was minus-18 in the Windy City.

Tom Skilling, a longtime meteorologist at Chicago's WGN-TV, says describing the weather as brutal is an understatement.

"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," Skilling said in his report. "I've lived here 40 years and never until today have never seen a more spectacular display of 'sea smoke.'"

The Arctic air will loosen its grip on the Midwest by Thursday afternoon; temperatures might even approach zero degrees in Chicago and Milwaukee. By the weekend, daytime temperatures will be above freezing across most of the Midwest.

This article was written by Angela Fritz, a reporter for The Washington Post.