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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 minus 30°F. Combined with winds of 40 miles per hour at times, wind chills are reaching dangerous levels below minus 50°F, and in some cases below minus 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 minus 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

Scoop: FDA chief called to West Wing

Stephen Hahn. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has summoned FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn to the West Wing for a 9:30am meeting Tuesday to explain why he hasn't moved faster to approve the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine, two senior administration officials told Axios.

Why it matters: The meeting is shaping up to be tense, with Hahn using what the White House will likely view as kamikaze language in a preemptive statement to Axios: "Let me be clear — our career scientists have to make the decision and they will take the time that’s needed to make the right call on this important decision."

Scoop: Schumer's regrets

Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images   

Chuck Schumer told party donors during recent calls that the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the fact that Cal Cunningham "couldn't keep his zipper up" crushed Democrats' chances of regaining the Senate, sources with direct knowledge of the conversations tell Axios.

Why it matters: Democrats are hoping for a 50-50 split by winning two upcoming special elections in Georgia. But their best chance for an outright Senate majority ended when Cunningham lost in North Carolina and Sen. Susan Collins won in Maine.

Trump's coronavirus adviser Scott Atlas resigns

Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty

Scott Atlas, a controversial member of the White House coronavirus task force, handed in his resignation on Monday, according to three administration officials who discussed Atlas' resignation with Axios.

Why it matters: President Trump brought in Atlas as a counterpoint to NIAID director Anthony Fauci, whose warnings about the pandemic were dismissed by the Trump administration. With Trump now fixated on election fraud conspiracy theories, Atlas' detail comes to a natural end.