CHICAGO — A merciless cold crippled the Midwest on Wednesday, halting planes and trains, shuttering schools and prompting officials in Detroit, Minneapolis and Chicago to open emergency warming centers for the homeless and vulnerable.
The bitter weather was believed to be tied to the deaths of at least eight people, including a man thought to have collapsed after shoveling snow and frozen to death in his Milwaukee garage. Hospitals saw a steady stream of patients reporting symptoms of frostbite.
Temperatures in Minneapolis dipped as low as minus 28, with the wind chill reaching minus 53, the National Weather Service said. Fargo, N.D., reached minus 33; Milwaukee, minus 20. The worst of the cold was feared overnight into Thursday, when meteorologists predicted that temperatures could dip to minus 27 in Chicago, a record for the city. The Midwest was expected to see miserable temperatures through Thursday, and the cold air was moving east.
Across the Midwest on Wednesday, residents who are used to carrying on with life’s routines despite bad weather had little choice but to shiver, stay indoors and make the best of it, even as the insides of their windows became ominously lined with ice. Office workers were stuck at home. Parents scrambled for last-minute child care. In Michigan, a gas company asked customers to use less natural gas to heat their houses after a fire at a compressor station.
Visits with prisoners in the Stearns County, Minn., jail were canceled. In Fort Wayne, Ind., garbage and recycling collection was delayed. In Wisconsin, the unthinkable: Distributors grounded their trucks, fearing that the beer would freeze solid.
Even the United States Postal Service — despite its unofficial vow that couriers cannot be stopped by “snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” — was forced to suspend deliveries in some particularly frigid places.
Health officials, urging people to go outside only if necessary, warned that exposing skin to the air could lead to frostbite. They were not exaggerating: Going gloveless for only a minute or two, in double-digit negative temperatures, left hands feeling numb, then clumsy and flipper-like, then white-hot with pain.
In Chicago, what would normally be a bustling day slowed to a frigid crawl. Lake Shore Drive, rather than being choked with the usual morning traffic, was leisurely. Buses continued on their routes and “L” trains rumbled through the city, but most cars looked nearly empty. A few stray bicyclists in ski goggles and snow pants could still be seen pedaling painfully down the streets, refusing to bow to the cold.
Restaurants, museums and shops seemed to have one thing in common: a hastily placed sign on the door announcing that they were closed for the day.
There would be no chance of a scoop of dulce de leche at Frio Gelato on Clark Street (not that anyone would want it). Even “Disney on Ice,” which was scheduled to run on Wednesday night at Chicago’s United Center, was canceled.
At Huck Finn, a diner on the Southwest Side, there were fewer patrons than usual. But the customers who did come in were cheerful, almost exuberant.
“It’s like they’re living through some kind of weather history — everyone else stayed in, and we’re here doing our thing,” the general manager, Demetri Hiotis, said. “There’s a sense of pride. It’s 22 below but I still went to work, got my breakfast, got my coffee and doughnut.”
Commerce slowed throughout the Midwest, but the frigid conditions were unlikely to exact a lingering economic toll. In a 2015 report, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago concluded that winter weather had “a significant, but short-lived effect on economic activity.” But economists, the report suggested, have struggled to pinpoint the financial consequences of events like this week’s polar vortex, especially because regional and national economies are shaped by many factors.
Perhaps the most distressing news was that it wasn’t over. The most intense cold is expected overnight Wednesday into Thursday, said Ben Deubelbeiss, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
After sunset on Wednesday, temperatures were to drop again, sinking so low that the record for Chicago — minus 27 — could be reached. “We were only a few degrees away from that today and we might achieve it tonight,” Mr. Deubelbeiss said.
By Friday, the temperature should be in the 20s, still below normal for this time of year in Chicago, but no longer the bone-chilling cold of midweek.
The extremely low temperatures this week in parts of the United States stand in sharp contrast to the trend toward warmer winters. But they may also be a result of warming.
Emerging research suggested that a warming Arctic was causing changes in the jet stream and pushing polar air down — hence this week’s atypical chill over large swaths of the Northeast and Midwest.
Friederike Otto, an Oxford University climate scientist who studies how specific weather events are exacerbated by global warming, said that while not all of these extreme events could be attributed to climate change, the profound changes in the earth’s atmosphere raised “the likelihood of a large number of extreme events.”
Throughout the Midwest, hospitals reported patients arriving with symptoms tied to the weather. The Illinois Department of Public Health said at least 30 people statewide had been to emergency rooms for frostbite or hypothermia-related visits by Wednesday morning.
At Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, the emergency department reported “many patients” who were injured or ill because of the weather. Frostbite cases alone led to at least 13 admissions.
“It’s busier than it would normally be,” Dr. Douglas D. Brunette, an emergency room doctor in Minneapolis, said on Wednesday afternoon. “But it’s not a mass casualty incident yet.”
Some forms of transportation were snarled by the miserable cold. More than 2,500 flights were canceled across the United States, according to FlightAware.
And Amtrak, which ordinarily runs 55 trains to or from Chicago each day, said it had canceled all of its Wednesday services involving the city and that most Thursday trains would also be scratched. Given Chicago’s prominence in the Amtrak network, the decision was expected to be felt across the country.
In the region’s biggest cities, many public transit systems tried to press on. The Chicago Transit Authority said its “L” trains had operated with some delays for a short time — and that workers had repaired one cracked rail — but were back to normal by afternoon.
Metra, a commuter railroad in the Chicago region that had already announced modified schedules, said it had suspended electric train service indefinitely because of wire problems “caused by harsh subfreezing temperatures.”
Transit agencies in Detroit, Milwaukee and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul were trying to operate normally, but some warned customers of the potential for delays.
Schools across a broad section of the nation canceled classes as the dangerous freeze descended, and some said they were pondering canceling classes again on Thursday. Many Midwestern institutions lean toward staying open through snowstorms and cold spells, but this one was different. For a second consecutive day, students on Wednesday were told to stay home at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where there was a forecast high of minus 3, relatively warm compared with other parts of the Midwest.
Hundreds of thousands of younger students in schools across the country’s midsection also had no classes. Administrators in school districts in and around Cincinnati, worried about students walking to school or the possibility of a bus breaking down in the cold, called off class. In parts of the region, the deep freeze meant several days without school, which quickly opened debates over how the missed days would be made up and whether summer vacation — seemingly so far-off now — might have to wait even longer.
The cold snap had some other, more bewildering consequences. Residents across the Midwest reported hearing mysterious crashing sounds, likely the result of a weather phenomenon known as a “frost quake.” During a sudden deep freeze, water in the soil can turn to ice and rapidly expand, causing sudden cracks in the ground and a loud boom. They usually strike during the coldest part of the night.
The deep cold brought other unfamiliar sounds too: Odd, sudden creaks and groans of porches and even buildings. Moans from frigid car engines. Whirring, drumming whines of wind against windows and walls.
On Wednesday morning, a few Chicago residents embraced the bone-chilling temperatures. At Montrose Harbor on Chicago’s North Side, Iggy Ignoffo stood at the edge of Lake Michigan, wearing sunglasses and a warm cap, hands stuffed in his pockets.
“I could see Venus, Jupiter and the moon a little while ago,” he said, pointing to the sky. “Beautiful.” Sea smoke rose from the lake, the result of extremely cold air blowing over warmer water.
The harbor was hardly deserted: A stream of curious people ducked in and out of their cars, snapping pictures, taking a brief frolic in the snow.
Mr. Ignoffo and his wife come down to the harbor all the time, he said, one of the most photogenic spots in the city.
This time, she stayed in the car.
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