Sign Up for Our Newsletter


Flash Frozen
Going outside in this week's polar vortex was crazy. But at least these people have amazing photos to show for it.

This week, residents of Moscow could marvel that—as cold as their city might be—well, at least it wasn’t as cold as Atlanta. Rather than spend a second freezing night on the lam, a 42-year-old escaped prisoner in Lexington, Kentucky, turned himself in. At Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, even the polar bear had to take things indoors. And in Memphis earlier this week—happy birthday, Elvis Presley!—it was a good 20 degrees colder at Graceland than it was in Anchorage, Alaska.

The polar vortex that caused all of this was not—despite its sinister-sounding name—concocted by a Batman villain. But there may indeed be something insidious behind the frigid phenomenon: climate change, which at least some scientists believe is pulling cold air down from the Arctic by mucking with the jet stream and global weather patterns.

Regardless of the cause, so weird was this weather anomaly that everybody, it seemed, wanted to go outside and document it. And though I would never, ever encourage a photographer to venture outside in a wind chill of 42 degrees below zero just to snap some pics … I have to say, I’m sorta glad these folks did.


Chicagoans awoke Monday morning to temperatures of 15 degrees below zero, wind chills of more than 40 below … and evidence of a massive snowball fight over Lake Michigan that had apparently taken place between the Norse gods Thor and Loki. Brian Kammerzelt, who photographed the hundreds of large icy spheroids he spotted atop the North Avenue Beach breakwater at sunrise, says he has “never seen ice balls form like that before.”


The sudden blast of Arctic air that the polar vortex visited upon Chicago made the lakefront of this modern, bustling metropolis look more like the alien terrain of a distant, icy planet.


By mid-afternoon on Monday, when this photo was taken, the local temperature in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was 13 degrees below zero—and a lookout over a rocky point on the shore of Lake Michigan had been transformed into an otherworldly citadel, seemingly borrowed from a fairy tale.


The polar vortex spawned a brand new—if briefly-lived—national pastime: tossing boiling water high into the frigid outdoor air and watching it return to earth, incredibly, as a dense cloud of steam and mist. With schools closed for the second day in a row on Tuesday in Pittsfield Township, Michigan, Bill VanderMolen braved temperatures of 5 degrees below zero (and wind chills of 20 below) in order to give his ten-year-old daughter, Abigail, a quick lesson on the physics of the water cycle.


On Wednesday morning, as temperatures in the New York City region hovered around 4 degrees, the fact of the rising sun happily proved to residents of southern Long Island that time, at least, had not frozen solid—even if the Fire Island Inlet had appeared to. In the background is the Robert Moses Causeway.


Images of shoreline ice formations are common enough when that shoreline is to be found in the Upper Midwest, Great Lakes, or Northeast regions. But surely no one in Biloxi, Mississippi, could ever have expected to wake up Tuesday morning and find that overnight temperatures in the low teens had turned the tide at Pass Christian Beach—in Mississippi Sound, along the Gulf Coast—from free-flowing surf into frozen slurry.

Like this article? Donate to NRDC to support OnEarth's groundbreaking nonprofit journalism.

image of Gail Henry
Gail Henry is OnEarth's photo editor. She was previously the dIrector of photography for Yahoo Internet Life and has worked for other national magazines, including Golf, Men's Health, and Sports Illustrated. MORE STORIES ➔