Life at -58F: I went inside the frozen heart of America’s polar vortex

the viking bar displays the temp in international falls, minnesota
The Viking Bar displays the temp in International Falls, Minnesota on Wednesday. Photograph: Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber/The Guardian

In this little city of 6,000 people, people are carrying on as usual, using a few tricks they’ve learned from a lifetime of frigid temperatures

— International Falls is known as the “Icebox of America” for good reason. The average high temperature in January is -9°C, or 15°F. In a typical year, the city will experience 109 days of subzero weather.

But this week the nickname seems particularly appropriate.

At 8am on Wednesday, the temperature in International Falls, at the very northern tip of Minnesota, was -36.4°F (-38°C). The windchill was -58°F (-50°C).

The National Weather Service warned that it could get even colder here on Wednesday night – potentially down to -65°C. But in this little city of 6,000 people, people were carrying on as usual, using a few tricks they’ve learned from a lifetime of frigid temperatures.

“You gotta have that International Falls shuffle going on,” said Stephanie Heinle, owner of the Coffee Landing Cafe downtown. Heinle demonstrated the manoeuvre by shuffling quickly across the wooden floor of the cafe. It’s a method of walking across ice that minimizes risk, she said.

“Because in this weather you can fall and break a hip and if someone doesn’t see you you freeze to death,” Heinle said.

Forecasters are describing the icy influx sweeping the American midwest as the coldest weather in a generation. On Wednesday, Chicago is predicted to see its lowest “high temperature” – the warmest point of a given day – since records began, and Minneapolis could also see historic lows.

The cold won’t stop there. It’s expected that 75% of the contiguous US will see sub-zero temperatures over the next week, a result of the polar vortex Arctic air pressure system bursting apart in early January. The wind system normally traps cold air at the North Pole, but its splintering has whipped frigid air far further south than normal.

Few have experienced the kind of cold currently occurring in International Falls. The temperature in a commercial freezer is -18°C. In New York City the all time coldest temperature was recorded as -26°C, back in 1934. The record low in the United Kingdom is -27.2°C, which has been reached on three occasions, each time in northern Scotland and most recently in the Highland village of Altnaharra, in 1995.

On Wednesday the thermometer here never made it past -30°C.

a pile of snow in a parking lot in international falls, minnesota on wednesday
A pile of snow in a parking lot in International Falls, Minnesota on Wednesday. Photograph: Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber/The Guardian

Still, at midday Coffee Landing was a hive of activity. There was a birthday party going on in the back, with eight people wearing little strap-on hats, and people bundled in and out, barely mentioning the weather.

“I’m not worried at all,” Heinle said. “Because I know it’ll go away. I know it’ll warm up.”

When she’s walking around town or running errands, Heinle doesn’t even wear a hat and gloves.

“If you’re used to wearing them when it’s only this temperature,” she said – there was a windchill of -45°F at this point – “Then when you go snowmobiling or something where you really have windchill, you’re going to be really cold. I know it sounds crazy.”

Heinle offered a personal tip on staying warm: “A little alcohol helps.”

It was a bit early to take Heinle’s advice, so I shuffled soberly out into International Falls’ main street.

a self portrait in sub-zero temperatures
A self portrait in sub-zero temperatures. Photograph: Courtesy Adam Gabbatt

International Falls is undeniably beautiful, divided from Canada by the picturesque Rainy River. The paper mill, a big local employer that looms over the city, pumps out steam as it turns wood into pulp, sending cascades of mist down the high street. It covers the trees in a crystalized frost, with the fog creating an otherworldly atmosphere.

But it is preposterously cold. Within seconds of stepping outside my nostril hairs had frozen. After two minutes my moustache was covered in ice.

I’d prepared well, I thought. I was wearing two pairs of long-johns, a pair of thick jeans, thick socks, insulated boots, two long-sleeved undershirts, a wool jumper, a fleece, a ski jacket, a balaclava, a “deep-winter” hat and two pairs of gloves, but still I was surprised to find my teeth literally chattering.

My phone quickly stopped working, as did my voice recorder, and my pen. My hat, purchased for cycling in New York winters, started letting in the cold after about two minutes. My ski-gloves, which my dad found in the back of a rental car in 2006, lasted about 30 seconds.

The winter has its upsides for the city. Tourists come to hunt and ice fish, and to drive the picturesque seven miles route around the frozen Rainy Lake.

the rainy river in international falls, minnesota on wednesday
The Rainy River in International Falls, Minnesota on Wednesday. Photograph: Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber/The Guardian

 

Car companies, including Kia, Hyundai and Land Rover, come too, testing new vehicles in the frozen conditions, and on Monday more than a hundred endurance athletes traveled to the area for the Arrowhead 135, a 135-mile race across northern Minnesota on cross-country skis, fat-tyre bicycles or just on foot. The winner, Jordan Wakeley, managed to set a new record in the race, on a bike, although around half of the 146 entrants dropped out in the freezing cold.

It was a boon for the local taxi company, which worked through the night picking up frozen athletes along the trail.

But there is no escaping the fact that it is dangerously cold. In a weather warning issued Tuesday, the National Weather Service said that the wind chill could cause frostbite on exposed skin in just five minutes.

“Hypothermia can set in quickly, which may lead to death,” the NWS added.

bob w anderson, mayor of international falls
Bob W Anderson, mayor of International Falls. Photograph: Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber/The Guardian

 

In this weather some households keep their water running non-stop, for months at a time, to prevent pipes from freezing and bursting. People leave their cars running while they eat inside bars and restaurants, to prevent doors from freezing shut and engines conking out. Extra time has to be allocated each morning to pull on layers of clothing, extra money spent on arctic-level jackets and boots.

It might beg the question as to why people choose to live here.

For International Falls’ mayor, Bob Anderson, the answer is easy.

“I love my city,” Anderson said.

“You can go ice-fishing, cross-country skiing. We have a beautiful lake that opens up every May through October, a beautiful river.

“I just really enjoy the birds, the animals. We have very distinctive seasons, we also enjoy that a great deal.”

Anderson, 76, was born and raised in International Falls, and has been mayor since 2012. He worked at the paper mill for 51 years before retiring in 2011, and remembers a nine-day stretch in the 1970s when the temperature never rose above -18°C, and a record snowfall in 1996.

When the ice descends on the the city it doesn’t thaw for months. But it doesn’t bother Anderson.

“The cold is probably akin to the heat in the south. I would not want to be where it’s a 110°F in the summertime. I know I would melt,” he said.

“I enjoy the cold. I’m not bothered by it terribly. You take a few more precautions, do a bit more reading in the winter time, and life goes on.

“And for 120, 130, 140 years it’s always been a white Christmas.”


by Adam Gabbatt | The Guardian