Irish caught in polar vortex: ‘I felt my eyeballs freezing’

US cities are in shutdown as record-breaking temperatures plummet lower than South Pole

People walk along the lakefront  in Chicago, Illinois. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

People walk along the lakefront in Chicago, Illinois. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

 

A blast of Arctic air is moving across the United States and Canada, bringing record-breaking windchill temperatures as low as -48°C in parts of the Midwest and East. In some areas, schools have closed, postal services have been halted, and residents have been advised to stay indoors until the polar vortex passes.

We asked Irish Times Abroad readers living there to tell us what it is like to experience such extreme cold.

Meanwhile in Australia,‘It’s face-meltingly hot’.

Killian Russell, Toronto: ‘A breeze would tear the skin off you’

It’s -30°C in Toronto right now. The hairs in your nose would freeze, a breeze would tear the skin off you. The government has issued a warning to not be outdoors for more than 20 minutes at a time. Scary weather at times here, but it’s also nice to be in a country where there are distinct seasons!

Louise Barry, Chicago: ‘It felt like my eyeballs were freezing’

Louise Barry,Chicago: ‘It’s eerily quiet.’
Louise Barry,Chicago: ‘It’s eerily quiet.’

This is my fifth winter here. The last few years have been relatively mild, it might hit -20°C and you can survive those temperatures with thermal layers and a good down jacket. But this weather is on a whole other level. It’s eerily quiet as everything shut down on Wednesday as the temperatures plummeted. It hit -47°C degrees in the morning!

The cold is unbearable; walking home from work on Tuesday night as the temperatures hit -30°C, the only part of my body exposed to the elements was my eyes; I’ve never experienced my eyeballs freezing but that’s exactly what it felt like was happening with the freezing wind. The winter weather can be deceptive as we have gorgeous bright blue skies, you wouldn’t think it was as cold. Typically, everyone uses winter warmers in their gloves and boots, and it’s not uncommon to see people with full face masks and ski goggles on to protect themselves. No one will be outside today as frostbite will occur after five minutes on any exposed skin.

The city has put on winter warming shelters for the homeless here, and hotels have been offering up rooms. Chicagoans are tough and will rally through; you’re not a true Chicagoan if you haven’t lived through a tough winter or two.

Rachel Sparks, Boston: ‘Your fingers feel like they’re touching a stove’

Rachel Sparks: ‘Your skin turns into alligator skin before it cracks. Your nose bleeds. Your fingers feel like their touching a stove burner on high.’
Rachel Sparks: ‘Your skin turns into alligator skin before it cracks. Your nose bleeds. Your fingers feel like their touching a stove burner on high.’

It’s been a year of irony for the states. Record-setting heatwaves in New England showed temperatures higher than Texas, and now, with Fahrenheit in the teens (-6°C to -12°C), we’re warmer than most of the country. Chicago has been recorded as being colder than Antarctica. When temperatures drop below freezing, cold is cold is cold. But your body can still tell the difference between 0 and -0 farenheit. Your skin turns into alligator skin before it cracks. Your nose bleeds. Your fingers feel like they’re touching a stove burner on high. When the wind picks up it feels like you can’t breathe. The town I grew up in the South has two snow plows for the entire city. Many of these places are not equipped to handle this weather. Hypothermia warnings are real and, because many midwestern schools are closed, they’re, thankfully, taking it seriously.

Edel Logan, Wisconsin: ‘Frostbite can occur within five minutes’

We have lived here for 28 years and have never experienced temperatures this low. Sheboygan is on Lake Michigan and ice shelves are increasing in size and frequency along the shore. All area schools are closed and many businesses too. No mail delivery today and people are being warned not to go out as frostbite can occur within five minutes. I have a friend currently living in Alaska and their temperatures are much warmer than here in Wisconsin.

Edel Logan: ‘I have a friend currently living in Alaska and their temperatures are much warmer than here in Wisconsin.’
Edel Logan: ‘I have a friend currently living in Alaska and their temperatures are much warmer than here in Wisconsin.’

Michael Halloran, Iowa: ‘The dogs refused to go out to do their business’

It’s -28°C (-41°C when you account for windchill) here in Amana, Iowa. My office is closed for the next 48 hours, so I’m working from home. We have a 14-month-old who loves being outside, so everyone’s going a little stir crazy stuck in the house. The dogs refused to go out to do their business this morning. We’ll have to wait until it gets a little warmer. We did throw some boiling water into the air outside and it turned to ice crystals immediately. That was fun.

Michael Halloran, Iowa: ‘We threw some boiling water into the air outside and it turned to ice crystals immediately.’
Michael Halloran, Iowa: ‘We threw some boiling water into the air outside and it turned to ice crystals immediately.’

Seán Ó Dálaigh, Chicago: ‘The city looks incredible covered in white’

Seán Ó Dálaigh’s daughter Astrid Ní Dhálaigh walking through the snow to school on Monday.
Seán Ó Dálaigh’s daughter Astrid Ní Dhálaigh walking through the snow to school on Monday.

When we emigrated to the US five years ago, we were welcomed by the polar vortex in the winter of 2014. There was a lot more snow back then, and it was exciting to experience; how you’d imagine a white Christmas should be. Minus 25°C is rough, but if you layer up properly you can still have fun sledding and playing in the snow. The city looks incredible covered in white and makes for great pictures to send home.

This vortex is different. Wind chills of -48°C are just dangerous. Being outside for even a couple of minutes hurts any part of your skin that’s exposed, as I found out on the short two-block walk to our local supermarket. Our kids have really been enjoying the snow the last few weeks but we’re keeping them indoors and warm. Chicago Public Schools are famous for not calling snow days in the winter, but they’re closed today and tomorrow, and we’re monitoring the situation. The bank I work for is closed for a day and a half so far, which is unprecedented.

It’s been interesting reading the global press coverage of the cold snap, and there’s been some hilarious memes. I’m sure we’ll look back on it in years to come, having experienced something record-breaking, and grateful for the warm home to ride it out. I’m sure I won’t be whining anymore about -10°C or -15°C.

Ciara Fitzroy, Toronto: ‘Cars aren’t starting’

When my family and I moved here in 2012, we had no idea what the winters would be like. Our first winter wasn’t too bad, but there was a lot of snow and the temperatures did drop significantly, whereas in Dublin the cold would go right through you. We have gotten use to it over the years; last year wasn’t bad but this past week it’s just been so cold. Cars aren’t starting, the cold is coming into the house quickly, snow is everywhere, and it’s very likely we could develop frost bite. You can only do so many things to keep yourself warm and keep your driveway clear of snow or ice. The current wind chill is -39 and it won’t warm up for another week. You definitely need a warm jacket and a decent pair of snow boots.

Marie Flood, Toronto: ‘The cold was actually painful’

It always amazes me that life goes on even in major snow storms. Yesterday my children had to shovel their way out of garden as they still had to go to work and college. Today we went shopping when the windchill was -35; the cold was actually painful. I love the summers here, but hate the winters. Roll on summer.

Jim and Marie Flood, Toronto: ‘My children had to shovel their way out of garden.’
Jim and Marie Flood, Toronto: ‘My children had to shovel their way out of garden.’

Barry Butler, Chicago: ‘Cold temperatures create steam rising from the water’

Today, I was out on the shores of Lake Michigan where the temperature was -32°C, before wind chill. Those cold temperatures create steam rising from the water, even when it’s frozen over. It’s an amazing thing to witness, as you can see in this photo of the Chicago skyline.

Barry Butler: ‘Today, I was out on the shores of Lake Michigan where the temperature was minus-32 degrees celsius, before wind chill. Those cold temperatures create steam rising from the water, even when it’s frozen over.’
Barry Butler: ‘Today, I was out on the shores of Lake Michigan where the temperature was minus-32 degrees celsius, before wind chill. Those cold temperatures create steam rising from the water, even when it’s frozen over.’

Ryan McGuinness, Toronto: ‘Arctic winds take your breath away’

I have lived Toronto for two years. Harsh and formidable winters are part and parcel of the “Big Move” to Canada. Fortunately, Toronto lies adjacent to the Ontario Snowbelt, meaning we are typically lucky and miss most of the serious cold and snowfall. But not this year. The polar vortex has sent temperatures plummeting to -34°C, arctic winds that will quite literally take your breath away, and extremely long morning commutes to the office are a daily reality. As temperatures are particularly low, we have to be extremely careful walking our puppy, Harry. It is particularly dangerous to take him outside for extended periods of time, as he is at high risk of getting hypothermia (he can’t tell me when he is cold and he always looks delightfully happy playing in the snow). The most noticeable difference this year is - quite oddly - my mobile phone, which will shut down within minutes of exposure to the cold.

Lake Michigan. Photograph: Derek Walsh
Lake Michigan. Photograph: Derek Walsh

Fergal Kerins, Toronto: ‘33cm of snow fell on Toronto overnight’

After a mild winter up to now, 33cm of snow fell on Toronto overnight this week, with temperatures of about -20°C and feeling like -30°C with the wind chill. When the temperature goes below -30°C, it stops feeling cold in the same way. It feels painful on exposed skin - especially the ears - and jackets that keep you warm at 0°C or -5°C feel tissue thin if the wind picks up.

Canadians take pride in not being stopped whatever winter weather brings. Usually there’s a sense of anonymity in a large city, but the weather effects people positively; they become less hurried, more empathetic and patient. One benefit of sub-zero temperatures is that it is bone-dry. The key to getting through this weather is lots of layers.

Alvin McNeely, Atlanta: ‘The pre-storm panic was hyped because of the Super Bowl’

In Atlanta the pre-storm panic was hyped because of the Super Bowl, which is this coming weekend. Tourists and fans are expected to be arriving all week ahead of the big event. Official state functions were cancelled. Schools were closed across the area. Roads were treated to prevent freezing. Reality failed to meet pre-vortex anticipation. When the storm front arrived, temperatures plummeted to about 30° F (-1°C), the rain stopped, the wind sped up, and the sun appeared. There was no snow.

Jack Mallett, Toronto: ‘We took the day off to enjoy the snow’

Me and my buddies, Lee and Killian, both took yesterday and today off to enjoy the record-breaking amount of snow thrown over Toronto City by the polar vortex. After spending half an hour that morning digging our car out of our front driveway, we grabbed some Guinness, and hit the slopes at a local park in the city called Christie Pitt’s. It was definitely the best sNOw work Tuesday we’ve had.

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