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The Midwest will be the hardest-hit area, with a life-threatening wind chill bringing temperatures down as low as minus 50F (-46°C) in the Chicago area and northern IL by Tuesday evening, the National Weather Service reported.
With the wind chill, it would feel like -40 or -50, officials said.
Two-thirds of the country will be a frozen ice box on Tuesday as the record-breaking temperatures crawl across the Midwest and forecasters warn that the frigid weather could be life-threatening. Unlike most Chicago residents, Gilbert was required to report to his job at a Starbucks on a downtown street largely devoid of its usual bustle of people and traffic.
Nationwide, 2,700 flights were cancelled on Wednesday while another 1,800 flights scheduled for today have also been called off.
In a rare move, the US Postal Service appeared to temporarily set aside its credo that "neither snow nor rain. nor gloom of night" would stop its work: it halted deliveries from parts of the Dakotas through Ohio.
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Ricky Castro, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Romeoville, Illinois, said: "This could possibly be history-making".
As ominous as the term polar vortex sounds, meteorologists say the phenomenon is not new, nor despite its sound does it refer to a cyclone of cold or a freakishly risky storm. A storm system has pushed temperatures as low as minus 25 degrees Celsius in the Great Lakes region, where the Niagara Falls is located.
The US National Weather Service is warning that frostbite is possible within just 10 minutes of being outside in such extreme temperatures, and hundreds of schools, colleges and universities in the affected areas have been closed. Chicago was on track to break new records overnight when temperatures were forecast to reach their lowest points in the early hours on Thursday.
"The bitter cold temperatures pose a real risk to people across the state", Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker said on Twitter after touring state emergency operations.
It could be the coldest day ever recorded in Chicago on Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.
Authorities and health experts warned of frostbite and hypothermia within minutes of exposure to the frosty air. They added that the city offered "shelter for homeless residents, warming centers and well-being checks".
Chicago´s regional electric train service was canceled due to wire problems caused by the freezing temperatures, as gas burners heated rail switches to keep trains moving on a reduced schedule. "I gotta pick up my medication at Walgreens or else I wouldn't be out the door".
An additional 200 flights were cancelled at Toronto's airport.
Snow and ice cover the vegetation on the edge of the Horseshoe Falls. As much as 60cm of snow was forecast in Wisconsin.