In Minneapolis — known for its long winters and characteristic biting cold — the mercury plunged lower than it had in the past 23 years, reaching minus-28 Wednesday morning and minus-23 Thursday morning. Cold like that comes around perhaps once in a generation — so naturally, I had to hop on a flight from Boston to experience it firsthand.
I landed Wednesday afternoon around 1:30 p.m. The pilot chuckled over the intercom, welcoming passengers to a “balmy fifteen below.” Exiting the aircraft and walking up the jetbridge, I must have resembled a steam engine — puffs of water vapor accompanied my breath in the subzero corridor entering the airport.
En route to the hotel, the shuttle driver, Hector Aguilar, asked why anyone in their right mind would fly to Minneapolis during the 2000s' worst deep freeze. “This is the coldest I can remember,” he said. “I’ve been here for 23 years. It seems like we get an episode like this every decade or two. I stocked up on hand warmers late last week.”
It wasn’t until I ventured outside around midnight that I truly understood what the rest of the Midwest and I were dealing with. To put things into perspective, think about the difference between 90 degrees and freezing. Pretty big jump, right? That’s the same difference between minus-26 degrees — which was what I got — and freezing.
Cold of this magnitude is especially dangerous because it doesn’t hurt. It numbs, and by then, the damage is done.
While conducting experiments Wednesday night, I briefly removed a glove to adjust settings on my camera; 30 seconds later, I tried to put the glove back on, but realized I had no feeling in my fingers and couldn’t effectively move them. It took a few minutes of thawing out indoors before I had regained sensation and could again head back outside to work.
Cold this extreme is invasive. It finds any piece of exposed skin. It weaves through the seams of your gloves, jets down the wiggle room in your boots and even sneaks in the stitching of your jacket. It’s like bathing in ice water fully clothed. Jumping into a frigid swimming pool without getting wet would be impossible, but that’s what being here feels like — walking outdoors into the cool, dense fluid of the atmosphere has the same effect.
Getting dressed here is like suiting up for battle; you don’t want any weak spots in your armor. This morning, I was deciding what I was going to wear in my video report (above). I pressed two fingers against the glass of my hotel room window, gave my best Jim Halpert face and decided “everything I have in my suitcase” would be the best choice of outfit.
When I shot the video above, it was minus-26. Diamond dust — small ice crystals — made the air shimmer, the glitter-like flakes a symptom of the atmosphere’s inability to hold water at temperatures this low. Each breath stung the nostrils and lungs while my contact lenses kept hardening as they began to freeze between blinks.
A couple times in the video, it may sound like I’m slurring my words. No, I have not been warming up by dipping into the Fireball. Instead, the cold has that effect — it numbs the muscles in your lips and face, making talking a challenge. I felt like the victim of bad plastic surgery.
At breakfast this morning, I overheard a number of parties discussing the cold. One family from northern Minnesota proudly boasted about their experiences weathering minus-40 degree temperatures back home, exclaiming, “This is nothing!” Minnesotans are proud of a lot of things, and apparently that includes temperature.
Fortunately, there is an end in sight. The Northern Tier and Midwest will undergo a dramatic warm-up by the weekend, flirting with record highs. Chicago could climb above 51 on Monday.