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130 years before the 'Polar Vortex,' there was the 'Polar Wave'

Written by
Adam Selzer
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As cold as it has been, I was surprised that the city closed schools two days in a row. I'm pretty sure that back in my day, we would have gone to school in weather like this. 

Back then, of course, the term "Polar Vortex" wasn't in use much. As of 1977, the winter that a generation of Chicagoans remember as the worst (with several weeks of consecutive days of freezing temperatures, compounded by a blizzard), newspapers generally used simple terms like "cold snap" to describe what was going on. "Polar vortex" comes up once or twice in Tribune articles, but both times it's used in an offhand way as a scientific term used to explain the origin of cold air, alongside other words like "Ionospheric winds," not as a buzz term for sound bites.

But hearty, old-time Chicagoans weren't above a buzz word or two. "Polar wave" and "arctic wave" were often used in the old days of weather forecasting.

One such "polar wave" hit Chicago in February of 1885. "It is probable that at noon yesterday every one in Chicago knew it was 16 degrees below zero," wrote the Tribune, "and yet every person announced it to every other as if it were a new and startling discovery." Around February 10–11 of that year, the temperate nudged down to about 20 below. Not our lowest recorded temperature ever, but cold enough that it's hard to imagine the difference. 

With heavy snow cover compounding the cold, the roads were a mess; papers described pedestrians in the Loop watching with amusements as sleighs tipped over, spilling the riders into the snow in a bit of big-city schadenfreude.

But here's the thing: Schools were open. They weren't well attended (one estimate had attendance at about 30%), but they were open. And I'll bet the students walked five miles to get to them—up hill, both ways!

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