In the United States, the Midwest and Northeast have shivered their way through a winter they won’t forget. They are calling it the coldest temperatures in a generation. If boiling water was thrown into the air, it would instantly freeze. The deep freeze is reminiscent of the Sci-Fi film The Day After Tomorrow.

The North Polar Vortex has caused these freezing conditions — it pushed Chicago’s temperatures down to -46 degrees Celsius. That is colder than Antarctica, Alaska and the North Pole. 

Source: Pixabay

The vortex was disrupted at the north pole, ejecting strong winds high up in the atmosphere, traveling southward. These offshoots of the vortex retained the cold from the Arctic region and carried these to parts of America.

A state of emergency has been declared in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan.

The wholly adverse side effects of the cold snap were the fatalities caused by it. The vortex affected the lives of more than 89 million people.

Schools were shut down, flights canceled, and the post office had to abandon their operations as well.


The engineering challenges

One of the biggest concerns with a deep freeze this potent was the infrastructure. How would it cope with the freezing temperatures? The first to freeze was the water infrastructure — the water mains froze over, essentially cutting the water off.

With winds picking up in the Chicago area, many were at risk of being without electricity as branches fell onto power lines. The lower temperature can also cause overhead power wires to contract and cause breakages and result in power outages. Some areas in Chicago were without power as the cold air was dumped on the city.

Consequently, engineers had to be called out to restore electricity to customers.

Soon after the polar blast came down on Chicago, the train tracks became a concern in the cold temperatures too. Reports started flying in that they were beginning to ice over completely. Civil engineers sprung into action to prevent the tracks from contracting and cracking due to the cold.

The engineers utilized the gas-fed system already fitted on the tracks to keep the flames going. In Chicago, the system is used during normal winters anyway — but this time it was working to its fullest extent. With the contracting of the steel, the snapping of the railways where they are bolted is possible. The fire allows the rail to expand again, where they can then be re-bolted or welded to the other tracks.

Experts are saying with the United States seeing more bomb cyclones and polar vortexes, closer attention should be given to climate events. This is because of the engineering works required before and after an incident. Climate change is proving that aging infrastructure globally may not be ready to withstand these events.


Works Cited

Gstalter, Morgan. “Chicago Using Fire to Keep Rail Tracks from Freezing in Polar Vortex.” TheHill, The Hill, 30 Jan. 2019,

Williams, Corey. “Polar Blast Envelops U.S. Midwest, Strains Aging Infrastructure.” CP24, 30 Jan. 2019,

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