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Expand chart
Data: National Weather Service; Map: Harry Stevens/Axios

An extreme winter weather event is unfolding across the Midwest on Wednesday, and by the end of the day, numerous daily and all-time temperature records will be shattered.

The big picture: An air mass that originated in the High Arctic is currently swinging across the Great Lakes, sending some air temperatures plummeting below -30°F. Combined with winds of 40 miles per hour at times, wind chills are reaching dangerous levels below -50°F, and in some cases below -60°F in parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan.

Details: Typically, when cold outbreaks hit the Midwest, meteorologists take on a reassuring demeanor, letting their audience know that this is the type of cold they've experienced before.

That's not the case this time. Here's what the NWS forecast office in Des Moines stated on Tuesday:

  • "THIS HAS THE POTENTIAL TO BE LIFE-THREATENING COLD AIR!!! This is the coldest air many of us will have ever experienced. This is not a case of 'meh, it's Iowa during winter and this cold happens.' These are record-breaking cold air temperatures, with wind chill values not seen in the 21st century in Iowa."

Depending on the location, Wednesday and Thursday are likely to be the coldest days in 20-plus years. In Chicago, the all-time record for the coldest daytime high temperature is likely to be tied or broken, with temperatures only climbing to -11°F. Similar records are in jeopardy in South Bend, Indiana, Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Rockford, Illinois.

Expand chart
Data: ThreadEx, WeatherBell; Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios

Residents of Minneapolis and Des Moines are being warned to limit their exposure to the cold to mere minutes, given the possibility of frostbite.

The climate context: This extreme weather event comes courtesy of a lobe of the polar vortex, which has swirled its way southward, out of the high Arctic, to strafe the Midwest and Northeast with a taste of the winter weather normally felt in far northern Canada.

And we're going to be seeing more of these. Even though we think of climate change as rising global temperatures, recent studies show that it could cause more frequent southward polar vortex incursions too — because as it melts Arctic sea ice, it alters the exchange of heat and moisture between the ocean and atmosphere in the Far North.

Scientists are still debating the physical drivers behind this process, and it's an area of active research.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

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True crime documentaries, podcasts and social media campaigns are bringing new attention to real-world legal proceedings — and are often affecting the outcome.

Why it matters: New media platforms can instantly put a national spotlight on cases that have long been forgotten or buried under red tape.

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The next big bottleneck in the global vaccination effort

Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

The world still needs more coronavirus vaccines, but an additional bottleneck has emerged in many low-income countries: They need help getting shots in arms.

Why it matters: Increasing vaccination rates across the world is both a humanitarian necessity and the best way to prevent dangerous new variants from emerging, but it increasingly requires complex problem-solving.

Updated 15 hours ago - Health

COVID-19 Omicron variant cases identified in Europe, U.K.

People wearing masks walk in London on Nov. 25. Photo: Li Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images

Health officials in the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany announced on Saturday that they've detected the first known cases of the new COVID-19 Omicron variant.

Why it matters: The discoveries come as the world scrambles to respond to concerns over the new variant, discovered in South Africa earlier this week.

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