‘Chiberia’: extreme cold in Chicago inspires solidarity and awe

The polar vortex of 2019 will become one of the city’s legendary winters, one to be reminisced about with a sense of wonder as much as woe

Brian Marchal isn’t afraid of a little cold weather.

As the founder of the Chicago Polar Bear Club, he has been jumping into frigid Lake Michigan every January for more than 15 years now.

But the polar vortex that froze much of the midwest and all but shut down Chicago and other midwest cities this week was too much to handle even for Marchal – a man who had, with about 350 other Chicagoans, taken a chilly dip in the lake just a few days earlier.

“I didn’t even step outside my door yesterday,” Marchal said on Thursday, as the city’s temperatures remained well below zero. “It’s too cold for me.”

The deep freeze began Wednesday, dropping air temperatures here in Chicago to more than 20 degrees below zero and around 50 below with the withering winds. At -23F (-30.5C), the arctic chill flirted with – but didn’t quite hit – the city’s lowest recorded temperature of -27F in 1985. Still, it was undoubtedly historic, plunging the city to its fourth-lowest recorded temperatures on record, temporarily closing businesses, attractions and some services, including mail delivery, and posing a significant safety risk to people here, particularly the city’s homeless population.

But the extreme cold also immediately took its place in the history of this city, whose unforgiving winters are often regarded as rites of passage here. Chicagoans of a certain age are fond of reminiscing about the punishing weather of yore: the Blizzard of 1967 that buried the city in 6ft-tall snowdrifts; the crushing winter of 1979, the snowiest on record here; and even the winter of 2013-14, which was notable not for a single storm but for a seemingly interminable onslaught of cold and snow over the course of several months.

To those legendary winters, add the polar vortex of 2019, which has turned Chicago into “Chiberia” and inspired in its citizens nearly as much wonder as woe. As the city endured extreme cold Wednesday and Thursday, it was also met with stunning images of steam rising off a frozen Lake Michigan and the Chicago River.

For as much inconvenience the weather caused – it made a nightmare of work commutes – it also inspired solidarity among Chicagoans, who used the occasion to engage in some scienceexperiments and to get some laughsout of the oppressive cold.

While the brutal cold has kept many off the streets here, the daily grind has also continued on. Bars put out signs advertising drink deals as the “antidote to the polar vortex”. Workers on construction sites labored in the shivering air. And residents like Roberto Bonilla continued about their days.

Bonilla had flown from a job interview in New York back home to Chicago on Wednesday, as the city’s temperatures plummeted below those of Antarctica and, at times, parts of Mars. He could feel the withering chill just walking through the tunnel between the airplane and the terminal, and as he took an El train back north from Midway Airport on the city’s far south side.

“It was so damn cold,” he said.

On Thursday, Bonilla was boarding a red line train to his eye appointment in the Loop. The freeze wasn’t as bad as it was the day before, he said, but it was still brutal.

“It’s cold as hell,” he said, clad in a long black coat and his face barely visible between his scarf and hat. “It’s ungodly.”

But the freeze is expected to relent, with temperatures expected in the 20s on Friday and even rising up into the mid-40s this weekend – a temperature swing that could come with its own problems, such as water main breaks.

For Marchal, that means staying safely inside and embracing the tangential benefits of the historic cold while it lasts.

“It is absolutely amazing what we’re seeing out there right now,” he said. “We don’t get weather days too often in Chicago, so we might as well stay in and enjoy it.”

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