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Canada How cold is it right now in the U.S. Midwest and Canada? A guide

A historic deep freeze has fallen over the American Midwest this week, resulting in several deaths and hobbling daily life in major cities. Auto plants closed in Michigan, rail travel ground to a halt in Chicago, schools closed in Minnesota. Meanwhile in Canada, much of Manitoba, Southern Ontario and parts of Quebec endured Thursday temperatures which, with wind chill included, reached the minus-30s or even -40s. It’s not the case everywhere in Canada - in Victoria, B.C., cherry blossoms have begun to bloom. On the east coast, some cities are enjoying above-season temperatures. But millions of Canadians are hiding out this week under extreme cold warnings stretching across the map. Here’s what you need to know about the cold snap so far.

Minneapolis, Jan. 30: Ducks find refuge on a steamy open section of Minnehaha Creek.

STEPHEN MATUREN/AFP/Getty Images


Why is it so cold?

The cold snap is caused by a split in the polar vortex, a mass of cold air that normally stays bottled up in the Arctic, but can dip much farther south when it gets unstable.

Polar

jet stream

Cooler

air mass

Warmer

air mass

STABLE POLAR VORTEX

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.

Arctic

circle

Equator

UNSTABLE POLAR VORTEX

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.

Cold air

Warm air

MURAT YUKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: NASA

Polar

jet stream

Cooler

air mass

Warmer

air mass

STABLE POLAR VORTEX

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.

Arctic

circle

Equator

UNSTABLE POLAR VORTEX

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.

Cold air

Warm air

MURAT YUKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: NASA

Polar jet stream

Cooler air mass

Warmer air mass

STABLE POLAR VORTEX

UNSTABLE POLAR VORTEX

Arctic

circle

Cold air

Warm air

Equator

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.

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.

MURAT YUKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: NASA

In this case, the vortex’s cold air reached south and then pushed eastward into states including Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania. These states were experiencing bitterly cold temperatures Thursday: Boston was at -15, according to the National Weather Service. “This morning is the worst of the worst in terms of the cold,” Andrew Orrison, a forecaster with the weather service, told Reuters. “It’ll be the coldest outbreak of Arctic air for the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast.”

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Konrad Gajewski, a professor of geography and environment at the University of Ottawa, told The Canadian Press the arrival of long-predicted weather patterns means it’s time for all levels of government to seriously plan for changes that are already hitting Canada in the form of sweltering heat waves in the summer and record cold in the winter.

This could mean more snow-clearing and flood response on the municipal level and global warming mitigation efforts across the board.

“This is the kind of thing people have been predicting for years,” said Gajewski. “This kind of pattern of more alternation, more extremes, both in terms of warm and cold conditions is what we’re expecting for the future.”

The good news is that it’s not going to last long. Many parts of the Midwest, including Chicago, will see low above-zero temperatures by Friday. After a period of snow this weekend, the temperatures in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal are expected to go slightly above zero and the cities may even see some rain.


How cold is it in Canada?

Prairies: Winnipeggers were bearing the brunt of Thursday’s deep freeze: With wind chill, temperatures started in the minus-40s in the morning and expected to reach the minus-30s by evening. Most parts of Manitoba are under extreme cold alerts from Environment Canada. Southern Saskatchewan was under a winter storm watch, with moderate to heavy snow expected Friday. Check the latest Environment Canada information for Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Central Canada: Torontonians woke up Thursday to temperatures as low as -34 with the wind chill, and only slightly warmer in Ottawa and Montreal. Some GO Transit service was delayed because of the cold, and on Thursday Toronto’s Union-Pearson express rail line was closed. Large parts of Ontario are under extreme cold alerts: Check the latest Environment Canada information for Southern Ontario, Northern Ontario, southern Quebec and northern Quebec.


How cold is it in the U.S. Midwest?

Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota were hit Wednesday by blasts of polar air that drove temperatures to near-record lows: -30 in Chicago, and -32 in Minneapolis. Wind chills reportedly made it feel like -45 or worse. In fact, Chicago was colder than Alert, Nunavut, one of the world’s most northerly inhabited places. Alert, which is 804 kilometres from the North Pole, reported a temperature that was a couple of degrees higher.

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By Thursday, several deaths had been attributed to the cold snap, including a woman in Ohio who froze to death in a vacant house. In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office said it was investigating the death of a woman found frozen in her unheated apartment.

Unsurprisingly, many offices in Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city, told employees to stay home Wednesday and Thursday. Amtrak cancelled scores of trains to and from Chicago, one of the busiest rail hubs in the United States, but by Thursday some service was restored, and the company said all but one train would be running as normal on Friday.

Chicago, Jan. 30: A man walks along the Chicago lakefront as the city copes with record-setting low temperatures.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Lisa Laws is bundled up as she has a CTA bus to herself early Wednesday. The cold struck Chicago transportation hard, with more than 1,600 canceled flights and limited rail service.

Rich Hein/The Associated Press

Crews in Detroit will need days to repair water mains that burst Wednesday, and other pipes can still burst in persistent subzero temperatures. Most mains were installed from the early 1900s to the 1950s. They are 1.5 to 1.8 metres underground and beneath the frost line, but that matters little when temperatures drop so dramatically, Detroit Water and Sewerage spokesman Bryan Peckinpaugh told Associated Press. On a typical winter day, the city has five to nine breaks, with each taking about three days to fix. But those repairs will take longer now with the large number of failures to fix, he added.

Some of the major U.S. auto makers in Michigan also agreed to suspend operations temporarily after a utility appealed to users to conserve natural gas during the extreme cold. Patricia Poppe, chief executive at CMS Energy, said large companies including Fiat Chrysler, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors had agreed to “interrupt” production schedules through Friday. But Ms. Poppe said the usage cuts by large businesses were not enough, and urged 1.8 million Michigan customers to turn down thermostats as much as they could to cut natural gas use in order to protect critical facilities like hospitals and nursing homes. “I need you to take action right now,” she said.

Armada Township, Michigan, Jan. 30: Fire comes out of the top of two silo-looking structures at the compressor station at Consumers Energy. The utility has called on customers to voluntarily reduce their natural gas usage following a fire at a suburban Detroit gas compressor station amid bitterly cold weather. The Jackson-based utility says no one was injured in the fire at its Ray Natural Gas Compressor Station in Macomb County. The cause of the fire was under investigation.

Todd McInturf/The Associated Press


Driving and extreme cold: Tips from Globe Drive

The myth about warming up your car on a cold day

What to put in your winter survival kit

What happens to an electric vehicle in winter?

How cold should it be before I plug my car into a block heater?


Winter reads

Ian Brown: What is it about the cold that obsesses us?



Associated Press, with reports from Globe staff, Reuters and The Canadian Press

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