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Record-shattering Arctic blast keeps the Midwest in a deep freeze

Calves endure the deep freeze on Thursday at Vision Aire, a family farm in Eldorado, Wis. (Lauren Justice for The Washington Post)

RIPON, Wis. — On the coldest day in two decades on his fifth-generation dairy farm, Chris Pollack grabbed a thick, black hose from the barn and ventured into the subzero cold, where his beef cattle were chomping cud and waiting for water.

The power had briefly gone out the previous morning, long enough to freeze the line that automatically fills the animals’ heated water trough. Pollack was here to replace it.

“Are you serious?” Pollack said, peering inside the hose. “There’s water frozen in the end already.”

He lifted it up to a small space heater and waited for it to thaw.

Such is life in the Deep Freeze of 2019.

The past 48 hours in the American Midwest have been about endurance, as a breathtaking cold settled in over a massive stretch of the country. The record-setting frigid temperatures — some of the coldest on the planet Thursday — have frozen the Great Lakes, taxed electrical and natural gas infrastructure, endangered livestock and tested the mettle of millions who are used to the cold but had never experienced anything like this.

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In some areas Thursday, temperatures dropped below minus-50 degrees, and the extreme weather was blamed for several deaths across the region, including people who appear to have frozen to death in Milwaukee, Detroit and Rochester, Minn.

From Minnesota to New York, the polar vortex again prompted school closures, mail service interruptions and thousands of flight cancellations, many of them in and out of Chicago, which appeared otherworldly in a coating of frost and ice. Eighteen factories run by General Motors, Fiat Chrysler and Ford shut down Thursday because of the brutal weather and a fire at a natural gas compressor station.

A record-shattering Arctic blast hit parts of Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and beyond durning the polar vortex in January 2019. (Video: The Washington Post)

Governors declared statewide emergencies and government offices temporarily shuttered.

More than 680 temperature records were broken or tied this week, according to the Midwestern Regional Climate Center.

In Mount Carroll, Ill., a trained weather observer reported that temperatures plunged to minus-38 degrees Thursday morning, according to the National Weather Service. If certified, it would be the state’s lowest temperature on record, supplanting a minus-36 degree day in Congerville on Jan. 5, 1999. In northeast Minnesota, the unincorporated community of Cotton sank to minus-56 degrees — four degrees shy of that state’s coldest temperature.

Wednesday was the second-coldest day in Chicago’s history. The maximum temperature, minus-10, was set just after midnight, and then the mercury dropped to minus-24 later in the morning. The combination of those extremes resulted in a daily average of minus-17, just short of Dec. 24, 1983, when the average temperature was minus-18 in the Windy City.

Tom Skilling, a longtime meteorologist at Chicago’s WGN-TV, said that describing the weather as brutal is an understatement.

“Lake Michigan took on the appearance of a boiling cauldron as air of minus-20 degrees and colder made contact with water sitting just above the freezing level,” Skilling said in his report. “I’ve lived here 40 years and never until today have ever seen a more spectacular display of ‘sea smoke.’”

Extreme weather, like the polar vortex, is becoming more common as the Arctic continues to be disrupted by climate change. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

The widely received message, clear to anyone with a thermometer, was to stay home and hunker down. But certain jobs, like Pollack’s, don’t have that option.

Police officers and firefighters have to reach emergencies. Heaters and stoves need to function. And the cows need water.

Throughout the Midwest, farmers have been waking up in the middle of the night to check on their livestock and fashioning makeshift shelters to keep their animals safe as temperatures fell to 20 below zero, and then 30 below zero.

An Iowa college student died after being found near his dorm, one of several victims of the Midwest freeze

Tommy Enright, a small farmer in Amherst, Wis., houses his rabbits in a carport. But the animals aren’t particularly resilient in the extreme cold, so to trap in the heat he draped an additional tarp across their individual cages.

It’s not pretty, he said, but it gets the job done.

“It’s been brutal out here,” Enright said. “Yesterday neither of our vehicles would start, so it’s been pretty interesting.”

In Indiana, cattle farmer Matt Schafer said one of his greatest challenges has been keeping the animals dry and the water thawed. Water for their older cows comes from a ditch creek behind the farm. Usually, there’s enough water movement to keep the creek from freezing. Not this week.

Schafer instead has had to chop a hole in the ice and suck out the water with a pump warmed with a propane heater. Everyday chores like this that usually take 45 minutes are now occupying up to two and a half hours of Schafer’s day.

“You just got to allow yourself more time to do everything,” Schafer said, “because everything seems to take a little longer.”

The cows, though, are tough. They keep a body temperature of 101 degrees and develop a thick coat in the harsh winters. Calves born this time of year arrive with fuller fur.

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Carl Schindler, who runs a dairy and beef cattle operation in rural Red Lake County, Minn., said earlier this week that his animals weren’t particularly bothered by the cold. “This is nothing too crazy,” he said.

In Schindler’s dairy barn, the air hung thick with steam from the animals’ bodies, keeping the temperature in the unheated structure about 60 degrees warmer than the air outside, where beef cows fed on hay and silage, their backs coated in a layer of frost.

“They get acclimated to the weather,” he said, noting that the cows typically do better under the extreme conditions than at temperatures right at freezing, as there is little danger of the animals getting wet. “You get that 20 below, even 30 below with no wind, they actually do pretty well.”

Janet Clark and her husband, Travis, help her family maintain a dairy cow and calving operation in Eldorado, Wis. Their water troughs are rigged with heat lamps to keep the liquid from freezing, and they purchased thick, vertical plastic sheets from a freezer company to help keep the heat in and the cold out.

Despite the heated floors in their milking operation, thick frost has invaded the interior of its windows and door frames. And the extreme temperatures have made their equipment sluggish, threatening the farm’s milk yield.

In an unfortunate twist, a compressor that cools the cows’ milk from body temperature to 40 degrees — at which point companies can pick it up and use it to make cheese — was frozen and sluggish. On a normal day, the cooling process takes minutes. In the extreme cold, it takes the better part of an hour.

“If it doesn’t cool down, they can’t pick up our milk,” Janet Clark said.

Concerned for the safety of their animals, the Clarks haven’t left the cows alone for longer than a few hours. They leave the farm each night around 8 p.m., and Travis returns around midnight to check on them. Another employee comes in at 3:30 a.m. to begin the morning milking rotation.

With temperatures expected to begin rising Friday and into the weekend, farmers are concerned that the dramatic temperature shift could cause secondary challenges, such as livestock illnesses.

So far, Pollack said his farm has been able to prevent sickness. The cows seem happy, even though their whiskers Thursday had become clumped with frost and snow.

“A lot of these cold snaps like this, how you survive it is a lot in the preparation,” Pollack said. But there’s only so much you can do. When it’s this cold, he said, “everything freezes.”

Wootson and Fritz reported from Washington. Michael Brice-Saddler in Washington contributed to this report.

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