As the polar vortex swirled over North America on Tuesday, all 50 states in the US recorded freezing temperatures – even Hawaii, which saw a low of around -8C at the summit of the dormant volcano Mauna Kea.
The Smithsonian magazine noted that in some areas it was colder than the surface of Mars, which is 78 million miles further from the Sun. As low-temperature records tumbled, more than 11,000 flights were cancelled over the four days of the freeze and at least 21 deaths were reported nationwide as a result of the perilous conditions.
Some were killed in car accidents, at least five collapsed while shovelling snow, and several homeless people failed to make it to shelter, simply freezing to death. In New York City, the temperature fell below -15C, but felt even colder due to wind chill. By Wednesday, however, the thaw appeared to have set in; the mercury is expected to be above 10C by the weekend.
The storm caused chaos for many, and confusion for others, as these stories from the storm attest to:
Burn after reading
In several Midwestern states, temperatures sank so far below freezing that you could toss boiling water into the air, and it would come back down as snow. Several TV reporters tried the trick, and others, including meteorologists, posted their own examples on YouTube.
Jason DeRusha, a local news anchor in Minnesota, encouraged his Twitter followers to try it out, writing, “Threw a pot of boiling water in the air. Kids thought it was awesome. Do it, people.”
Yet not everybody had quite such an enjoyable experience. The Los Angeles Times found at least 50 people on social media who said they had scalded themselves or others while attempting the trick, and some even had to go to hospital for burns treatment.
DeRusha later returned to Twitter to apologise to those who’d tried it in insufficiently low temperatures. “Sorry that anyone got hurt!” he said. “I look forward to the post on all the Minnesotans who did this safely!”
Polar vortex in pictures: Best photos of American 'big freeze'
Polar vortex in pictures: Best photos of American 'big freeze'
Sunlight streams through the windows of the Waterman Opera House, Nebraska
A city bench and other structures are covered in a thick layer of ice in Plattsmouth, Nebraska
Frozen water clings to the Grand Haven South Pier in Grand Haven, Michigan
Cold weather lingered in Michigan as many students returned to school for the first time this year, and roads were slippery with freezing rain and snow in the forecast that could cause more problems
Ice covers the lights along the Grand Haven South Pier in Grand Haven, Michigan
An aerial view of the city of Chicago
Many visitors gathered to observe the falls in Niagara Falls, Ontario
The frozen mist from Niagara Falls coats the landscape around Prospect Point at Niagara Falls State Park making it a study in white
The US side of the Niagara Falls pictured in Ontario
The frigid air and 'polar vortex' that affected about 240 million people in the United States and southern Canada will depart during the second half of this week, and a far-reaching January thaw will begin
Prospect Point at Niagara Falls State Park in Ontario
Ice chunks and water flow over the falls Niagara Falls, Ontario
The Chicago skyline is framed by icicles in Chicago, Illinois
Ice forms on parts of a dock on West Grand Traverse Bay near the Great Lakes Maritime Academy in Traverse City, Michigan
Ice covers power lines and after a high pressure water main broke in the sub-freezing winter weather in Dunwoody, Georgia
Ice covers power lines and the street after a high pressure water main broke in the sub-freezing winter weather in Dunwoody, Georgia
Ice builds up along Lake Michigan at North Avenue Beach in Chicago, Illinois
Ice in the Mississippi River flows past the Gateway Arch in St. Louis
Ice builds up along Lake Michigan as temperatures dipped well below zero in Chicago
Chicago hit a record low of -16 degree Fahrenheit this morning as a polar air mass brought the coldest temperatures in about two decades into the city
The Chicago skyline is seen behind a large chunk of ice near North Avenue Beach
A beach front is covered in ice in Chicago, Illinois
A deadly blast of arctic air shattered decades-old temperature records as it enveloped the eastern United States
Homes are seen covered in snow and ice in Chicago
The Chicago skyline and a freezing Lake Michigan are seen from the Museum Campus in Chicago
A snow encrusted bicycle with wind chills nearing minus 30 Fahrenheit in downtown Chicago
A car partially covered in ice in Baltimore, where temperatures continue to remain well below freezing
The frozen shore of Lake Superior
A man prepares to remove his plow stuck in a snow bank as snow and wind swirls in St. Louis
Four homeless men warm themselves on a steam grate by the Federal Trade Commission, blocks from the Capitol, during frigid temperatures in Washington. A winter storm that swept across the Midwest this week blew through the Northeast, leaving bone-chilling cold in its wake
Ice from the breath of Gail Davis forms around her face as she exercises by walking outside in Minneapolis
A man wears a face mask and heavy clothes while walking through downtown Springfield, in blowing and falling snow as a strong winter storm moves through the Midwest. Temperatures not seen in years are likely to set records in the coming days across the Midwest, Northeast and South, creating dangerous travel conditions and prompting church and school closures
Allan Umscheid, owner of Yards By Al in Lawrence feels the bitter wind and catches drifting snow on his face as he runs a snow blower
An exterior waterfall that froze overnight is seen at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington
Ice forms on the shore of the East River due to unusually low temperatures caused by a polar vortex in New York
Dogs on a surface of frozen swimming pool
Snow covers an Abraham Lincoln statue in Hackley Park in Muskegon, Michigan
St. Simon's on the Sound Episcopal Church's fountains is frozen over in Fort Walton Beach, Florida
Let me back in!
Robert Vick was nearing the end of a six-year sentence for burglary and criminal possession of a forged document when he escaped from the minimum-security Blackburn Correctional Complex in Kentucky on Sunday night.
Yet after spending the night a few miles away in an abandoned, unheated house, where his socks froze solid, on Monday morning Vick, 42, decided to turn himself in. He went to a nearby motel in Lexington, where he asked the manager to call the authorities. The shivering escapee was suffering from frostbite due to the -25C wind chill. Motel guests gave him hot chocolate as they waited for the local police.
Naturally, the conservative right would not be convinced that the polar vortex had anything to do with climate change. Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh even claimed that “the left” had dreamt up the phrase “polar vortex” simply so as to link the cold weather to “the global warming agenda”.
The name “sounds like a crappy science fiction movie,” Limbaugh said, accusing liberals of “perpetrating a hoax.” Speaking on his popular syndicated show, Limbaugh said, “We are having a record-breaking cold snap in many parts of the country. And right on schedule the media have to come up with a way to make it sound like it’s completely unprecedented.
“They’ve got to find a way to attach this to the global warming agenda, and they have. It’s called the ‘polar vortex’. The dreaded polar vortex.” Meteorologists pooh-poohed his claims.
While the rest of the country suffered, Los Angeles remained under a blanket of smug this week. In Southern California, the weather warnings were not about the chill, but about the possibility of wildfires due to the above-average temperatures.
On Monday in downtown LA, the temperature climbed to more than 25C, some five degrees higher than normal for this time of year. On the beaches of Venice and Santa Monica, many were wearing swimsuits. Late-night talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel sent a camera crew to interview some of the more scantily clad beachgoers – and then pelted them with snowballs.
Fire and ice
If boiling water froze instantaneously in the cold air, it’s little surprise that fire crews should find the same thing happening to the spray from their hoses.
Over the weekend, a crew tackling a blaze in Minneapolis, Minnesota – where the temperature dropped below -20C – found their efforts had coated the smouldering house, not to mention the nearby trees and pavements, in a thick layer of ice.
In another cold-weather trick gone awry, 12-year-old Maddie Gilmartin from New Hampshire stuck her tongue to a frozen metal flag-pole, à la Dumb and Dumber.
She was stuck for around 15 minutes until her parents noticed her flailing her arms beside the pole in their front garden, and used warm water to set her free. According to local news station WMUR, Gilmartin was taken to the emergency room and told the swelling in her mouth could last up to six weeks.
The widespread cold snap could cost the US economy around $5bn, according to Planalytics, a firm which tracks the weather’s effect on businesses.
Road closures and cancelled flights left hundreds of thousands of commuters unable to travel in the adverse conditions, while retailers and restaurants saw custom dip as people chose to stay at home rather than brave the chill.
Next month, businesses also fear a knock-on effect as people save their pennies to pay for the bumper energy charges incurred this week. Not every business suffered, however: cold weather outfitters enjoyed a hot streak.