Last Updated on August 6, 2022
There’s nothing that a British person loves more than to moan about the weather. It’s in our blood. So you can imagine my joy (using the term loosely) when I discovered that Iowa was going to be hit with wind chill temperatures of -50c. All those people back home on my Twitter and Facebook feeds going “It’s -6c/21f!! I’ve never been so cold in my whole life!!”…and I’m sat here like “…well…hold my tea, I’ve got news for you!”. Ladies and gentlemen I give you the Midwest Polar Vortex 2019.
Winter in Iowa – Polar Vortex 2019
During the past couple of winters, I’ve experienced temperatures of -30c. That doesn’t seem to be anything unusual for Iowa and life just seems to tick on. But January 2019 brought with it a ‘Polar Vortex’. Usually this vortex thing sits up over the top of the NORTH POLE. For some reason it dropped down lower and landed over the top of the American Midwest (some rumours say global warming).
Not only does it generally bring cold temperatures, but it also comes with a type of circular wind. This then lowers those cold temperatures further. For example, the air temperature at 7am on Wednesday morning (30th Jan 2019) was -34c/-29f BUT with the wind chill, the real feel temperature was actually -50c/-58f.
Science & The Extreme Cold
Of course when I first moved here, there was a novelty to the cold weather (that wore off pretty quick) and I tried a whole bunch of science experiments. For example when it was -26c/-14f, I blew a bubble with some regular store bought bubble mix, caught it, it froze instantly. When you touch it, the bubble then cracks like glass rather than popping. It’s pretty cool. I filmed it which you can see below:
The 2nd experiment could have gone hideously wrong. But in extreme coldness, you can throw a cup of boiling water straight into the air and it turns instantly to steam. Turns out that one works too! (Don’t try this at home)
Another viral experiment during the Polar Vortex was people freezing wet clothes, especially jeans. They’d go stiff and stand up like there was an invisible person.
My latest cold weather discovery thanks to the Polar Vortex is ‘Sundogs‘. These are almost like rainbows around the sun. Most commonly you’ll see a patch of light either side of the sun, to the left and right, also called a ‘mock sun’. Sometimes there’ll even be a circle right up and over the top, known as a halo.
It’s caused by the sun reflecting off ice crystals in the air. I tried to Google how cold it has to be for a Sundog to occur but it didn’t come up with any exact answers. It does seem to be fairly rare in Iowa to see them so strong though.
They are best seen when the sun is closest to the horizon, such as during sunset or sunrise. But living in the middle of a small town, that’d mean getting in my car and driving somewhere and that ain’t happening. Phenomenon or not! Some of my Midwest friends took awesome pictures of them though.
A Polar Vortex doesn’t necessarily bring with it snow. But when temperatures get too cold, snow doesn’t ‘stick together’ to make snowballs or snowmen! No matter how hard you try to compact it, it’ll just stay as powder. It has to start melting for it to join together.
What It’s Like To Live Through A Polar Vortex As An Expat
How did I cope with the Polar Vortex? Err not brilliantly. I basically went into hibernation…minus the sleep because I was always half awake wondering if work would be cancelled or delayed (we tend to get a message around 5am).
As I mentioned right at the start, British people don’t ‘do cold’. Our climate back home tends to be very ‘mild’. -6c/21f is about as low as it’ll go and even then it’ll most likely be during the night or the morning commute, by mid-morning you’re looking at temperatures back up over 0c/32f. And for the most part, the grass is always green.
We rarely get snow either, especially ‘down south’ in Essex, where I’m from. You might be lucky if you get a dusting, it’ll bring everything to a standstill for a day, schools may close and it’ll all be gone by the next day. I’m talking like mini amounts of snow…like 2cm (an inch) for the whole year, whereas in Iowa you could get 30cm (12 inches) of snow just in a night…and then get exactly the same amount the next day too.
Part of the problem as to why British infrastructure can’t cope, is that because we don’t get ‘bad weather’ very often. Money isn’t spent on things to combat it on the odd occasion that it does happen. Snow ploughs only really exist at airports for the runways. Unlike the USA where the grit trucks have a plough on the front, we just have the grit truck, they don’t do 2 jobs.
In Iowa, they tell you not to park on the road or along side streets on days when the snow is due to be bad. This is to let the ploughs do their job without having to try and scoop round parked cars. Could you imagine if they said the same in the UK? The majority of houses only have a one car driveway or off road parking for one car. Most families have at least two, so park the second on the road…where on earth would they all go?!?!
Cars In The Cold
Speaking of cars, when temperatures get that low, cars start to throw a hissy fit. If your battery is on the way out, now is that time that you’re probably going to find out. Cars often struggle to start when they’ve been parked up outside in the cold. As for the CD player…when temperatures hit somewhere around -15c my car can’t even play the CD, it’ll just come up ‘disc error’ on the screen!
Shovelling Snow – no thanks
No one has a snowblower in the UK and it’s rare for people to shovel snow. They may make a path to their front door or put some salt down but they don’t tend to shovel a whole driveway, after all it’ll be gone in a day. Sometimes in Iowa you’ll need to shovel snow on a daily basis. If the plough goes by and piles it up at the bottom of your drive, well you’ve now got a 2ft pile to dig through too.
Trains In Winter
Trains get cancelled in England because it’s too cold/there’s snow on the track? Not in Chicago! During the Polar Vortex they simply just SET FIRE to the tracks, especially on parts of the tracks that switch trains onto another part of track…if they get froze stuck, the train doesn’t change lines!
In England, at the very mention of snow, you can expect ‘panic buying’. Everyone rushing to the shop to buy bread and milk. In theory, we should have been more prepared for the Polar Vortex, we planned to go shopping on the Tuesday and decided we probably had enough to get us through the 4 days or so until it got warmer. The dinners may be a bit odd looking but we weren’t going to go hungry.
After all, when it’s -53c outside, there were very real warnings to only go outside if you really had to. At those temperatures frostbite can occur in just 5 minutes. The usual USPS (post service) was suspended in 4 states for the safety of the mail workers. The rubbish bin collections were suspended too. And of course, there was no school. Even the universities called off classes which doesn’t happen very often.
School was cancelled almost solidly over the space of 2 weeks for all different reasons. From ice, to snow, to BLOWING snow and then the cold temperatures. A difference between schools in America and schools in the UK, is that the majority of kids in small town America are bussed to school. Would you want to be responsible for a bus load of kids in dangerous driving conditions? No, probably not. In the extreme cold temperatures, there’s also the worry of how long they’ll be waiting at the bus stops for, again 5 minutes isn’t a long time.
How To Dress
How do you even dress for -53c? I wrote a post a while back about How to Survive a Midwest Winter, about how I dress differently for winter in Iowa compared to back home. I never even owned a ‘bobble’ hat (one with a pom pom on the top) at home and now I don’t think even one of those would be cut out for -53c!
It did feel a little like I was going crazy and trapped in the house. I don’t even want to drive in conditions that aren’t ideal! Plus it was lonely. At least at work I get to speak to people or in summer when I have no work, I pass other walkers, talk to the lady at the post office etc. Part of me wanted to go out and take photos…but then I didn’t really want them that bad.
Some positives were that it meant that I could FaceTime home early. Rather than waiting until after I finished school, which is 9.30pm UK time, I was able to call early, therefore my Mum could actually go to bed at a reasonable time, instead of waiting up for me to ring. I also spent the extra time working on my blog.
We had it lucky compared to some people. Most of our house was heated perfectly fine. (Apart for the back porch which had ice on the INSIDE of the window…no double glazing out there! It reminded me of the stories my Mum would tell me about the iced up windows when she was a kid!). The water hadn’t frozen, we had food in the fridge/freezer and I didn’t HAVE to leave the house unless I wanted to. My daily walk to the mailbox at the bottom of the drive was enough for me. I know there were a lot of my friends that were struggling about keeping animals warm, especially those on farms where the animals would usually live outside.
Within the space of 3 DAYS the temperature had jumped from -53c to 4c…that’s a difference of 57 DEGREES! Which if you consider that the UK has a rough temperature span of 25 degrees across the whole year (summer to winter). For it to change 57 degrees just in one season…and in 3 days too…is just crazy! And the majority of snow melted in that time as well!
So the conclusion is that I survived, but hid away for the whole of the Polar Vortex 2019. Is it nearly spring yet?