Chicago Will Be Colder Than Parts of Antarctica This Week

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Chicago is preparing for life-threatening cold temperatures this week as a polar vortex grips the Midwest. Temperatures are expected to stay below -13°F all through Wednesday, January 30, making the Windy City colder than the South Pole in Antarctica, which will see highs of -4°F that same day, CBS Chicago reports.

The Midwest is known for its brutal winters, but the first month of 2019 is already shaping up to be one of the coldest months in the region's history. On Wednesday, thermometers could read as low as -20°F, which would be a record low temperature for January 30 in Chicago. It's also in the running to be the second-coldest day ever for the city, coming behind January 20, 1985, which brought lows of -27°F.

Wind chill will make the historic temperatures even more extreme. Gusts could potentially make it feel as cold -50°F outside, prompting safety officials to put a wind chill advisory into effect early Tuesday morning. At 6 p.m. Tuesday, the advisory will be upgraded to a wind chill warning which will last until noon on Thursday. The Chicago public school system has already canceled all classes for January 30, and in Wisconsin, Governor Tony Evers has declared a state of emergency.

This week's weather isn't just cold by Midwest standards. Barrow (Utqiaġvik), Alaska; Oslo, Norway; and even parts of Siberia and the Yukon are all expected to see high temperatures above that of Chicago's on January 30.

[h/t CBS Chicago]

What is Lake-Effect Snow?

Tainar/iStock via Getty Images
Tainar/iStock via Getty Images

As you probably guessed, you need a lake to experience lake-effect snow. The primary factor in creating lake-effect snow is a temperature difference between the lake and the air above it. Because water has a high specific heat, it warms and cools much more slowly than the air around it. All summer, the sun heats the lake, which stays warm deep into autumn. When air temperatures dip, we get the necessary temperature difference for lake-effect snow.

As the cool air passes over the lake, moisture from the water evaporates and the air directly above the surface heats up. This warm, wet air rises and condenses, quickly forming heavy clouds. The rate of change in temperature as you move up through the air is known as the "lapse rate"; the greater the lapse rate, the more unstable a system is—and the more prone it is to create weather events.

Encountering the shore only exacerbates the situation. Increased friction causes the wind to slow down and clouds to "pile up" while hills and variable topography push air up even more dramatically, causing more cooling and more condensation.

The other major factors that determine the particulars of a lake-effect snowstorm are the orientation of the wind and the specific lake. Winds blowing along the length of a lake create greater "fetch," the area of water over which the wind blows, and thus more extreme storms like the one currently pummeling the Buffalo area. The constraints of the lake itself create stark boundaries between heavy snow and just a few flurries and literal walls of snow that advance onto the shore. The southern and eastern shores of the Great Lakes are considered "snow belts" because, with winds prevailing from the northwest, these areas tend to get hit the hardest.

The One-Day Record Snowfalls In Each State

Greenseas/iStock via Getty Images
Greenseas/iStock via Getty Images

Long after you’ve grown out of believing in magic, every thick, whirling snowstorm still seems to have been cast upon your town by a winter warlock (or Frozen’s resident ice queen, Elsa).

It’s also pretty magical when those inches of stacked snowflakes add up to a message from your manager telling you not to come into the office. In southern states like Georgia or Florida, sometimes all it takes is a light dusting.

But even those characteristically balmy places have hosted some serious snowstorms over the years, and David Cusick for House Method crunched the numbers to find out which ones made the record books. Using data from the National Centers for Environmental Information, Cusick created a map showing the one-day record snowfall for each state.

Florida finished in last place with a scant total of 4 inches, which occurred in Santa Rosa County on March 6, 1954. About two years before that, on January 14, 1952, Colorado had a staggering 76 inches—that’s more than 3 inches per hour—a national record that’s remained unchallenged for nearly 70 years.

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But other states have come close. The snowstorm that hit Colorado in 1952 wreaked almost as much havoc in California, whose record from the same day was 75 inches. And Washington saw 70 inches of snow in November 1955, beating its 52-inch record from 1935 by a full 18 inches.

Though Midwestern states have gained a reputation for harsh, snowy winters, their one-day record snowfalls are surprisingly moderate. The Illinois and Indiana records are 24 and 26 inches, respectively, both slightly lower than Ohio’s 30-inch snow day from 1901. In 1993, North Carolina bested Ohio’s record by 6 inches.

Wondering how your individual county’s record compares to the overall state one? Cusick created a map for that, too, which you can explore below.

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[h/t House Method]

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