Earth's Most Notable Cold Blast of 2019 Headed For Midwest U.S.

January 28, 2019, 5:26 PM EST

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Above: The Great Lakes as seen at 1852 UTC (12:52 pm CST) Sunday, January 27, 2019, from the NOAA-20 polar orbiting satellite. Arctic air from Canada was spilling over the lakes, creating heavy lake effect snows to the lee of all five lakes. Image credit: CIMSS, SSEC, UW-Wisconsin.

A fierce blast of Arctic cold is on its way to the Midwest U.S. for Tuesday through Thursday, one that has the potential to set Earth’s first all-time cold records of 2019. While relatively few such records are likely to fall, a large number of all-time low maximum records (daily highs) may fall, due to the multiple-day length of the cold wave. Also notable will be the extreme wind chills that will accompany this event: west to northwest winds of 10 – 20 mph will blow during the coldest period, resulting in dangerous wind chills below –40°F to portions of 12 states.

On Sunday, ahead of the main event, the temperature fell to a frigid –46°F in International Falls, Minnesota—tied for their fifth coldest reading on record, along with a –46° reading from Jan. 21, 2011. Their record is –55°F in 1909.

The culprit behind the cold blast is a lobe of the stratospheric polar vortex that is setting up shop across the Great Lakes, far south of its usual position.

Wind chill forecast

Figure 1. Coldest wind chill readings predicted from Monday, January 28 through Friday, February 1, 2019. Twelve states are predicted to experience winds chill readings of -40°F or colder (pink colors). According to climatologist Brian Brettschneider, the coldest wind chill in Minnesota data appears to be –70°F at International Falls on Feb 2, 1996 (temp –45°F, wind 9 mph). Image credit: NWS.

What kind of records are most likely to fall?

The coldest air temperatures with this Arctic outbreak will extend from the northern Great Plains to the western Great Lakes. Within this region, there will likely be a number of daily record lows, especially on Wednesday and Thursday morning. In many locations, the cold will be the most intense in 20 years or longer. The all-time coldest temperatures in the northern Plains and Midwest are tough to beat (see Figure 2 below), but at least one or two all-time record lows cannot be ruled out.

Longtime Illinois meteorologist Gilbert Sebenste (AllisonHouse) made this forecast late Sunday: “The state of Illinois’ coldest temperature ever recorded, –36°F degrees at Congerville, IL, on Jan. 5, 2009, has a very good chance of being broken, especially on Thursday morning. It could be them, Ashton, Sugar Grove, Paw Paw, or some other small city away from Chicago.”

Because the intense cold will be sustained over two to three days, the odds will be boosted for daily and all-time record-cold maxima. The all-time lowest daily highs at Chicago (–11°F on Jan. 18, 1994 & Dec. 24, 1983) and Rockford (–14°F on Jan. 18, 1994, and Jan. 6, 1912) are both in jeopardy. For Wednesday, the NWS office in Chicago is predicting highs of –14 in Chicago and –15°F in Rockford.

Record low highs have been considerably more common than record lows lately. Over the 365-day period ending Monday, according to the NOAA U.S. Records site, the nation saw a total of 11,404 daily record lows and 17,795 daily record-low maxima. Both of these were far eclipsed by the number of daily record highs (21,907) and daily record-high minima (35,563).

All-time record lows across the MIdwest as of Jan. 2019
Figure 2. All-time lowest temperatures recorded across the Midwest. Recordkeeping across this region extends back to the late 1800s. Image credit:

No all-time cold records globally in 2019 yet: an unprecedented occurrence so late in the year

The current cold blast has not set any all-time record lows at any major stations with a long-term period of record thus far, though several stations in northern Ontario have come within a few degrees of doing so. At least four Midwest U.S. cities have a chance of setting an all-time cold record Wednesday or Thursday morning, though: Chicago (predicted low, –25°F, record low, –27°F); Rockford, Illinois (predicted low –30°F, record low –27°F);  Cedar Rapids, Iowa (predicted low –35°F, record low –29°F);  and Waterloo, Iowa (predicted low, –34°F, record low, –34°F).

Weather records expert Maximiliano Herrera, who tracks all-time heat and cold records for thousands of major stations globally with a 40-year plus period of record, reports that so far in 2019, no stations have set an all-time cold record. We’ve never gone this deep into January without an all-time cold record being set since global record-keeping began, according to Herrera. In contrast, in the Southern Hemisphere, where it is summer, January 2019 has seen an all-time record for highest minimum temperature for the entire hemisphere (36.6°C or 97.9°F min temp at Borrona AWS, Australia), two nations or territories with their all-time heat records, and 33 stations with all-time heat records:

Kulgera (Australia) max. 47.0°C, 3 January
Port Augusta (Australia) max. 48.9°C, 15 January (increased to 49.5°C on 24 January)
Tarcoola (Australia) max. 49.0°C, 15 January (increased to 49.1°C on 24 January)
Griffith (Australia) max. 46.4°C, 16 January
Albury (Australia) max. 45.3°C, 16 January
Woolbrook (Australia) max. 38.7 °C, 16 January
Cooma (Australia) max. 39.5°C, 16 January
Cootamundra (Australia) max. 43.6°C, 17 January
Christmas Island Aero (Australia) max. 31.6°C, 19 January:  New territorial record high for Christmas Island
Ceduna (Australia) max. 48.4°C, 3 January (increased to 48.6°C on 24 January)
Eucla (Australia) max. 48.6°C, 23 January
Adelaide (Australia) max. 47.7°C, 24 January
Adelaide Airport (Australia) max. 45.8°C, 24 January
Cleve (Australia) max. 46.7°C, 24 January
Port Lincoln Airport (Australia) max. 48.3°C, 24 January
Clare (Australia) max. 44.9 °C, 24 January
Snowtown (Australia) max. 47.3°C, 24 January
Parafield (Australia) max. 47.7 °C, 24 January
Edinburgh (Australia) max. 47.5°C, 24 January
Roseworthy (Australia) max. 48.3°C, 24 January
Nuriootpa (Australia) max. 46.0°C, 24 January
Kuitpo (Australia) max. 44.0°C, 24 January
Strathalbyn (Australia) max. 46.7°C, 24 January
Deniliquin (Australia) max. 47.2°C, 25 January
Swan Hill (Australia) max. 47.5 °C, 25 January
Kyabram (Australia) max. 47.1°C, 25 January
Sale (Australia) max. 45.5°C, 25 January
Gobabis (Namibia) max. 41.7°C, 25 January
Pointe des Trois-Bassins (Reunion Islands,France) max. 37.0°C,  25 January: New territorial record high for Reunion Islands
Young (Australia) max. 43.5°C, 26 January
Santiago (Chile) max. 38.3°C, 26 January
Santiago Airport (Chile) max. 39.3 °C, 26 January

For comparison, in January 2018, 11 major stations globally set all-time cold records in January, and 16 set all-time heat records. For the year 2018 as a whole, 430 stations set all-time heat records, and 40 set all-time cold records. With global warming steadily increasing the baseline temperature of the planet, it becomes harder and harder to set all-time cold records.

Huge temperature swings coming to Chicago this week

Temperatures on Wednesday in Chicago are predicted to be at near-record cold levels—about 40 degrees below average—for both the high and low: a high of –14°F (all-time record low-high was –11°F on January 18, 1994) with a low of –25°F (all-time record low was –27°F on January 20, 1985). The temperature was 35°F in Chicago on Monday morning, which means the mercury could plummet 60°F in less than 72 hours. But the near-record cold will be replaced by temperatures about 10°F above average over the weekend.  Chicago’s forecast is for a low temperature of 34°F for Saturday night, and a high of 41°F on Sunday, which would be 66°F above the predicted low this Wednesday. Temperature swings of this extremity are very rare for Chicago.

According to Gilbert Sebenste, "The extreme freezing and thawing and frost wedging/upheaval is going to cause major problems with roads. Expect very numerous potholes, large ones at that, developing over the next two weeks. Expect cryoseisms [ice quakes] Tuesday through Friday, caused by the rapid freezing of water in ground cracks and crevices." Moreover, he adds, "in about seven to nine days, when all of this starts to melt rapidly, expect dense fog and the possibility for ice jam flooding on rivers."

Bob Henson contributed to this post.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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Dr. Jeff Masters

Dr. Jeff Masters co-founded Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. in air pollution meteorology at the University of Michigan. He worked for the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990 as a flight meteorologist.

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