Frozen eyelashes, burning train tracks: dealing with the Arctic blast in Chicago & the Midwest

The coldest temperatures in a generation brought the upper Midwest to a halt

Today's expression: Good Samaritan
Explore more: Lesson #128
February 11, 2019:

A blast of Arctic air clobbered the Midwest of the United States at the end of January, bringing life in the major cities and the farms and fields to a halt. Businesses told workers to stay home, airlines canceled flights, and the infrastructure of life strained under the frigid temperatures, which reached minus-25 degrees Fahrenheit. Your host managed to disappear during the cold temps. Plus, learn the English term "Good Samaritan."

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The polar vortex brought a blast Arctic-cold air to America’s heartland

The coldest temperatures in a generation brought the upper Midwest of the United States to a halt for a few days at the end of January. Depending on the place, it was twenty or twenty-five degrees below zero Fahrenheit—about 30 below zero Celsius. That, I’m here to tell you, is very cold.

Welcome back to Plain English; great to have you with us once more for another exciting edition of our English podcast. Today is Episode 128. I’m Jeff; JR is the producer. Our e-mail addresses if you’d like to get in touch are [email protected] and [email protected]. WhatsApp works also; send us a message to +1 312 967-8757.

The transcript of today’s episode can be found at PlainEnglish.com/128, and that is exactly where you will find the instant translations, too. You’ll see translations of the most difficult words and phrases from English to Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, French and Japanese. PlainEnglish.com/128.

I also want to mention our partnership with MosaLingua. I hear from so many of you who are learning English for a lot of great reasons—well any reason is a great reason, but many of you are doing this for a specific, professional reason. You’re taking a test to try to get a scholarship; you work for an international company; or you are going to travel or move to a new place. And a lot of you are asking about ways to practice that are more interesting, more fun, than just looking at a textbook. And that’s why I like MosaLingua so much for Spanish. It’s high-tech, interactive, and lots of fun. They have a wide variety of programs, from free apps to pronunciation courses to their full online suite of programs. You can learn all about those at PlainEnglish.com/learn. Six million people have signed up in one way or another, and I know there’s something there that’s right for you. So check out MosaLingua at PlainEnglish.com/learn.


Polar vortex hits US Midwest

For three bone-chilling days at the end of January, the people Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis—and all the farms and fields in between—suffered from some of the coldest temperatures seen in a generation. For a brief time, it was warmer on the North Pole than it was in Chicago.

Schools and businesses closed; airlines canceled flights; and homes and cars suffered under the strain of a once-in-a-generation cold. Water pipes in homes burst, cars refused to start, furnaces strained to keep up with the plunging temperatures, and train tracks broke apart. Heroic repair crews worked outside to keep essential utilities like electricity and gas working properly. Most people heat their homes with natural gas in the Midwest. In some places, utility companies were telling people to keep their indoor thermostats at a chilly 60 degrees to keep the entire system from overloading.

The central business district of Chicago, the third-largest city in the United States, was a ghost town, as the businesses told workers not to come into the office. Most restaurants were also closed for at least one day. Mail service was suspended; in Minneapolis, even the snow plows, normally the hardiest of vehicles, came to a halt.

Most people in Chicago and Minneapolis managed to not leave their homes. Downtown businesses told people not to come into work, and most people heeded that advice. Others were brave enough to go outside for a short walk—but anyone who did venture outside had to bundle up and cover almost every square inch of exposed flesh: just a few minutes would have been enough to induce frostbite. The slightest moisture on your eyelashes or eyebrows would turn to ice crystals in just a few minutes. Health officials were warning people not to talk outside and to minimize deep breaths since breathing in too much cold air could hurt your lungs.

Chicago hit a low of minus-23 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-31 degrees Celsius), near the all-time record of minus-27 Fahrenheit reached in 1985. Minneapolis hit minus-27. Detroit’s minus-13 degrees was the coldest ever on record in that city. The coldest city in America that week was Norris Camp, Minnesota, which reached minus-48, which is minus-44 Celsius.

Apart from the big cities, the Midwest is a very rural area. Farmers struggled to keep their livestock alive and, to a certain degree, comfortable in the cold. One farmer said he had to dry off newborn calves with a towel, since they come out a bit moist right as they are born—the farmer didn’t want the newborn calves to freeze in their first few moments on this earth.

In Chicago, they set fire to the train tracks to keep them warm—literally. When temperatures drop that low, the steel rails contract so much that they can break apart at the switches, which would cause trains to derail. Crews laid fuel-soaked ropes around the tracks in those areas and set them on fire to raise the temperatures of the rails, so they wouldn’t break apart.

At the airport, thousands of flights were canceled. Fuel lines froze, so planes could not refuel. Amtrak train service, which connects Chicago to other cities, was suspended.

The cold was caused by a break in the polar vortex. The polar vortex is a swirling mass of the coldest air on earth. It’s usually contained in the Arctic region, but for a few days it spilled much farther south, reaching into the big cities of the Midwest region of the United States. The last time this happened was 2014, but that cold wasn’t as bad as the frigid temperatures that struck this year.

Any time a cold snap like this hits, it’s important to think about people who are vulnerable to the weather—people who don’t have a home to go to. Big cities set up warming stations for people to go to if they either didn’t have a home, or if their heat wasn’t sufficient. Oftentimes, homeless people gather together under tents and blankets and hunker down to survive the cold. In one spot in Chicago, they were using propane tanks to provide a little heat—but a tank exploded and the police confiscated the rest of the propane tanks, leaving the people outside with no way to warm up. Luckily for them, a Good Samaritan offered to pay for hotel rooms for the seventy-odd people who were in that area.


A lot of you were wondering how I survived the cold—apparently this cold made the news around the world. I actually wasn’t in Chicago or the Midwest for the worst of it. I was in New York that week for work. The coldest it got there was ten degrees above zero, which is still very cold, but definitely manageable. I felt a little disappointed, though, because I missed out on all the action. I kind of wish I had been in Chicago. If I had been, I think I would have gone outside for just a few minutes—just to see what that cold feels like. I think the coldest I’ve ever felt was about minus-five or minus-ten Fahrenheit. So I’m a little disappointed I missed out on the weather event of a generation.

Time to say hi to a few listeners. Rogerio is from Sao Paulo has been with us since Episode 50 and he listens on the bus. I also heard from Luis from Guadalajara. He was telling me about the movie Roma, which we talked about on Episode 120. He says he can personally attest that the depiction of Cleo in that film is an accurate portrayal of the deep and complicated relationship caregivers like Cleo have with their families. He also says that a lot of the scenery brought back memories from when he was growing up too. I enjoyed hearing about Luis’s experiences and his thoughts on the movie.

Finally, hello to Jacqueline from Germany, who has been attentively following all the Brexit episodes. Jacqueline had an internship in the European Parliament and uses English to connect with people from all over the world that she encounters in her studies and work. That is one great thing about English—it is the most convenient language for people around the small countries of Europe to communicate with one another. If you’re an Italian visiting Amsterdam, or German visiting Barcelona, or Russian visiting Paris, one thing you have in common is English. I wonder if that will change after Britain leaves.

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Expression: Good Samaritan