For more than two decades, shivering residents of Lincoln could point to history to help them make it through the coldest days of winter.
Temperatures always make it above zero here. The streak dates nearly 23 years, to Feb. 2, 1996, the last day of all minus signs.
But Wednesday presented a challenge for thermometers locally (and anyone who had to spend time outside). From an overnight low of minus 9 degrees at the Lincoln Airport at 5:59 a.m., it climbed — slowly. Minus 7 at 8 o'clock, minus 4 at 11 a.m., minus 2 — with snow falling — at 1 in the afternoon.
By 3 p.m., the streak was safe. Zero.
The cold weather caused officials to cancel classes at K-12 schools in Lincoln, even suspended mail service locally, but the bottom-line wind chill of minus 28 at 3:54 a.m. was balmy when compared with other parts of the country.
Wind chills made it feel like minus 50 in those areas.
Without the wind factored in, Chicago dropped to minus 23, slightly warmer than the city's lowest-ever reading of minus 27 in January 1985. Minneapolis recorded minus 27. It got down to minus 25 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The good news is that the cold air is short-lived. Temperatures in Lincoln will soar over the next several days, with the high approaching 27 Thursday, 44 Friday, 49 Saturday and 55 on Sunday.
The normal high in Lincoln this time of year is 37.
Deaths blamed on cold
At least eight deaths nationwide were linked to cold temperatures, including an elderly Illinois man who was found several hours after he fell trying to get into his home, and a University of Iowa student found behind an academic hall several hours before dawn, the Associated Press reported.
Elsewhere, a man was struck by a snowplow in the Chicago area, a young couple's SUV struck another on a snowy road in northern Indiana and a Milwaukee man froze to death in a garage, authorities said.
The bitter cold was the result of a split in the polar vortex, a mass of cold air that normally stays bottled up in the Arctic. The split allowed the air to spill much farther south than usual.
Fargo, North Dakota, dropped Wednesday to minus 31 degrees (without factoring the wind). In Antarctica, the balmy forecast at the South Pole Station was minus 25.
No fleeing the weather
The freezing weather made it difficult for anyone hoping to escape to warmer conditions.
FlightAware said the weather forced the cancellation of more than 2,700 flights nationwide Wednesday, including the bulk of flights from Chicago's two main airports, O'Hare International and Midway.
Those cancellations had a ripple effect, wiping out flights at the Lincoln Airport and Eppley Airfield in Omaha.
Train traffic was also disrupted, including Amtrak lines to and from the Chicago area. Chicago commuter trains that rely on electricity were also shut down after the metal wires that provide their power contracted, throwing off connections.
Minnesota transportation officials said some snowplows were experiencing mechanical problems because of subzero temperatures, so officials decided to idle plows for several hours.
The U.S. Postal Service suspended mail delivery in parts or all of several Midwest states.