Deadly polar vortex blasts Midwest with coldest air in decades – live updates

By Peter Martinez, Alex Sundby, Justin Carissimo

/ CBS News

Deadly polar vortex making everyday tasks unbearable

What we know about the deep freeze

USPS to suspend service in some states

The United States Postal Service said Tuesday it will not deliver mail to areas some parts of the country on Wednesday due to the extreme cold brought on by the polar vortex.

Service will be suspended Wednesday in parts of Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois (including parts of Chicago), Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, western Pennsylvania, the Dakotas and Nebraska, the USPS said.

In addition to deliveries, pickups from businesses, residences and collection boxes are also suspended.

NASA releases image of the polar vortex

NASA has shared an image of the polar vortex that combines NASA Earth science and other satellite measurements of temperature, moisture, wind speeds and directions, and other conditions.

This map provided by NASA shows air temperatures at 2 meters (around 6.5 feet above the ground) 4 a.m. ET on Tue., Jan. 29, 2019, as represented by the Goddard Earth Observing System Model, Version 5. GEOS-5 is a global atmospheric model that uses mathematical equations run through a supercomputer to represent physical processes. NASA

NASA wrote on its website: A large area of low pressure and extremely cold air usually swirls over the Arctic, with strong counter-clockwise winds that trap the cold around the Pole. But disturbances in the jet stream and the intrusion of warmer mid-latitude air masses can disturb this polar vortex and make it unstable, sending Arctic air south into middle latitudes. That has been the case in late January 2019.

Forecasters are predicting that air temperatures in parts of the continental United States will drop to their lowest levels since at least 1994, with the potential to break all-time record lows for Jan. 30 and 31.

Chicago is expected to be colder than Mount Everest base camp

Chicago is set to experience one of its coldest days on record, with the high temperature expected to be 12 degrees below zero on Wednesday, CBS Chicago reports. That would make it colder than some of the most frigid places on Earth.

While Chicago freezes, the South Pole is expected to reach a high temperature of 4 below zero Wednesday, CBS Chicago reported. And the northernmost point in the United States — Barrow, Alaska — will be 7 below zero.

That's right, a city that is located above the Arctic Circle is expected to be warmer than Chicago.

Experts warn about sub-zero temperatures

With frigid temperatures on the horizon, experts are warning about hypothermia and frostbite.

Hypothermia starts setting in when a person's body temperature drops from the normal 98.6 degrees F to about 95 degrees. The body begins to shut down. Heart and breathing rates slow down, accompanied by confusion and sleepiness.

"Hypothermia is a medical emergency when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. As your body temperature drops, your heart, brain, and internal organs cannot function. Without aggressive resuscitation and rapid rewarming, you will ultimately not survive," explains Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital.

"Without rapid rewarming, your heart rate and breathing slows even further, leading to poor circulation to the brain, heart and extremities, which is fatal," Glatter said.

How long it takes for someone to freeze to death depends on conditions and the type of exposure, but death can occur in under an hour if conditions are dangerous enough. It can happen even more quickly in a situation such as falling through ice into freezing water.

The elderly and infants are especially vulnerable to hypothermia, according to CBS News' Dr. Tara Narula.

What is the polar vortex?

vortex-crop.jpg
The polar vortex is a large area of low pressure and cold air surrounding the Earth's North and South poles. The term vortex refers to the counter-clockwise flow of air that helps keep the colder air close to the poles (left globe). Often during winter in the Northern Hemisphere, the polar vortex will become less stable and expand, sending cold Arctic air southward over the United States with the jet stream (right globe). NOAA

The frigid air will come from a brief visit by the polar vortex — which is a real meteorological phenomenon, not just a sensational headline. It's a whirling mass of cold air circulating in the mid- to upper-levels of the atmosphere, present every winter.

It usually stays closer to the poles but sometimes breaks apart, sending chunks of Arctic air southward into the U.S. during winter.

This week's particularly cold outbreak may be explained by the relative lack of cold air so far this winter in the eastern U.S. Instead of the cold air bleeding south a little at a time, it's coming all at once.

Is the polar vortex connected to climate change?

A counterintuitive theory about the polar vortex is gaining ground among some in the climate science community: Regional cold air outbreaks may be getting an "assist" from global warming. While it may not seem to make sense at first glance, scientifically it's consistent with the extremes expected from climate change.

Overall, Earth is warming due to climate change, but areas near the North Pole are warming more than 2 times faster than the rest of the globe. This "Arctic Amplification" is especially pronounced in winter.

When warm air invades the Arctic Circle, it weakens the polar vortex, displacing cold air masses southward into Europe, Asia and the United States. You might think of it as a once tight-knit circulation unraveling, slinging pieces of cold air outward.

Chicago residents seek shelter in underground walkway system

Some Chicago residents are seeking refuge from the blistering cold in the city's underground walkway system. CBS Chicago spoke with two men finding warmth there before sub-zero temperatures hit the city.

Steven Garron sells StreetWise magazines to pay his rent in Dolton, but Marine veteran Joshua Stockwell doesn't have a place to live, so he sleeps on the CTA trains at night. "I hope and pray the K9 unit don't kick me off the train," he said.

With temperatures that could hit 23 below zero overnight, Stockwell knows it might not be warm enough even on the train. Stockwell said shelters won't accept him or his service dog, who helps him with seizures and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"I don't know what else to do," Stockwell said.

Garron said he lives in southwest suburban Dolton, and takes two buses downtown so he can sell magazines on the Pedway to be able to pay rent.

"I just got to do it, because I need my rent money. I'd rather have the rent money than to be outside, homeless," he said. But he won't be taking that bus trip on Wednesday, when temperatures might not get above 14 below zero.

First published on January 30, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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