“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” is the unofficial motto of the U.S. Postal Service.
That unofficial motto says nothing about cold, and it is so frigid and so dangerous that the Postal Service is among the many schools, government offices, businesses and organizations closed around the Madison area on Wednesday.
In fact, the Postal Service suspended mail delivery on Wednesday in parts or all of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, as well as Wisconsin.
The cold weather was even affecting beer deliveries, with a pair of western Wisconsin distributors saying they would delay or suspend shipments for fear that beer would freeze in their trucks.
Now THAT is cold.
It’s cold young people will be telling their grandchildren about, and older folks are comparing to infamous cold snaps of the past.
At 6:53 a.m. in Madison the actual temperature was 26 below, and the wind chill was 47 below, as officially measured at the Dane County Regional Airport.
The National Weather Service reported that wind chills bottomed out at 48 below in Madison and 51 below in Mineral Point.
The bottom line is: stay inside, unless you absolutely must go out. And if you must go out, dress in layers and don’t leave any skin exposed.
"You're talking about frostbite and hypothermia issues very quickly, like in a matter of minutes, maybe seconds," said Brian Hurley, a meteorologist with the Weather Prediction Center.
While the record for the date is Madison’s all-time coldest actual temperature of 37 below on Jan. 30, 1951, other records could be broken, as the Weather Service predicts a high of just 13 below on Wednesday and an overnight low early Thursday of 30 below, before temperatures creep back toward zero during the day Thursday.
Madison’s all-time lowest high is 19 below on Dec. 21, 1872, so that record appears safe, but there is a good chance for Madison to break its record lowest high for Jan. 30 of 1 below set in 1951, and its record low for Jan. 31 of 22 below, set in 1985.
The worst wind chill ever in Madison was 54 below on Jan. 20, 1985, while Milwaukee’s record cold wind chill was 56 below on Jan. 10, 1982.
Wind chills are expected to bottom out at 45 below to 55 below Wednesday, and 40 below to 50 below early Thursday, when winds will be weaker.
The slight piece of good news is that the wind child warning the area has been under since 6 p.m. Tuesday will end on Thursday: at 10 a.m. for Dane, Iowa, Sauk, Green and Lafayette counties, and at noon for Dodge, Columbia and Jefferson counties.
Temperatures then will rise into the teens on Friday and above normal into the 30s and perhaps touch 40 over the weekend, according to forecasters.
"The mercury will go from record lows in the 20s below zero during the middle of this week in Chicago to about 40 above zero by the end of the weekend, a swing of about 60 degrees,” AccuWeather meteorologist Bill Deger said in a news release.
Sunday and Monday may feel more like March days from Wisconsin to Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, New York City and Boston.
Unfortunately, any rebound in temperatures across the northern Plains this weekend may also be brief as colder air quickly returns, though not to the degree as this week’s arctic blast.
The reality is meteorological winter lasts until the end of February.
"There is still plenty of time for more low-level cold events leading to snow and ice and holding back temperatures, especially in the Northeast and Midwest," AccuWeather lead long-range meteorologist Paul Pastelok said in the release.
Still, he added that "Any cold for the rest of winter may not be as extreme, especially for the Plains and Midwest.”
This brutal cold stretch comes thanks to a portion of the “polar vortex” moving into the region in the wake of a powerful winter storm that dumped 6.3 inches of snow in Madison and more than a foot of snow north and east of Madison Sunday into Monday. For the latest travel conditions, call 511 or go to the state’s 511 road conditions website.
Tuesday’s high in Madison was 6 at 2:05 a.m. and by the day’s end it was 18 below, having officially gone below zero between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. That 18 below reading was 8 degrees warmer than the record for Jan. 29 of 26 below, set in 1951 as temperatures were plummeting to that record of 37 below early the next morning.
If the first polar vortex to hit the area in five winters keeps actual temperatures below zero until Friday, as is forecast, it would be historically rare for Madison: In records dating back to 1869 there have been just 13 times that Madison went three straight days staying below zero, according to data from the Midwestern Regional Climate Center. The last time was Feb. 3, 1996, when the low bottomed out at 29 below.
Officials throughout the Upper Midwest were focused on protecting vulnerable people from the cold, including the homeless, seniors and those living in substandard housing.
Some buses were turned into mobile warming shelters to encourage the homeless to come off the streets in Chicago, where the forecast for Wednesday night called for a low of 21 below and wind chills to 40 below.
In Michigan, homeless shelters in Lansing were becoming "overloaded," Mayor Andy Schor said, and they also were filling up in Detroit.
"People don't want to be out there right now," said Brennan Ellis, 53, who is staying at the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries.
Hawaii native Charles Henry, 54, was staying at a shelter in St. Paul, Minnesota, and said he was grateful to have a place to stay out of the cold.
"That wind chill out there is not even a joke," he said. "I feel sorry for anybody that has to stay outside."
A period of light freezing rain or drizzle is possible Saturday afternoon and night.
The Weather Service said that in Madison on Wednesday, the high near 13 below will come with west winds at 10 to 15 miles per hour, producing wind chills of 40 below to 50 below, with some patchy blowing snow.
Overnight the low should plunge to near 30 below, with west winds easing to 5 to 10 mph, producing wind chills of 35 below to 45 below.
There’s a 50 percent chance for snow on Thursday, mainly after 4 p.m., with 1 to 2 inches possible as the high rises to 1 below under mostly cloudy skies. West winds should blow at 5 to 10 mph before turning out of the south in the afternoon, producing wind chills of 40 below to 50 below.
The snow should end overnight, with a low around 4 below and wind chills of 10 below to 15 below.
The Weather Service said skies over Madison should be partly sunny Friday, increasingly cloudy Saturday, cloudy Sunday, and mostly cloudy Monday and Tuesday, with highs near 19, 36, 41, 40 and 26, and lows Friday night through Monday night around 10, 34, 36 and 19.
There’s a slight chance for freezing drizzle and drizzle Saturday afternoon into the evening; a chance for rain or freezing rain Saturday night from 7 p.m. through 8 p.m., then a chance for rain, snow, and freezing rain after 8 p.m. though 7 a.m. Sunday; turning into a slight chance for rain and snow and then just rain on Sunday; a 70 percent chance for rain Sunday night; a 70 percent chance for rain and snow Monday; and a 60 percent chance for snow next Tuesday.
27 Storm Track meteorologist Branden Borremans forecasts a high near 12 below Wednesday, a low near 31 below overnight, and a high Thursday near 3 below, with wind chills of 35 below to 55 below Wednesday, and 35 below to 50 below overnight into Thursday, before the cold eases with highs Friday through next Wednesday reaching near 18, 35, 40, 42, 27 and 28.
Borremans said there could be some light snow with light accumulations Thursday afternoon into the night, some possible freezing drizzle Saturday afternoon, a light mix Saturday night, a little light rain Sunday into Monday, ending as a little light snow Monday, light snow Tuesday afternoon, snow Tuesday night, and light snow showers next Wednesday night.
Tuesday’s high in Madison was 6 at 2:05 a.m., 21 degrees below the normal high and 48 degrees below the record high of 54 for Jan. 29, set in 2013.
Tuesday’s low in Madison was 18 below at 11:59 p.m., 29 degrees below the normal low and 8 degrees above the record low of 26 below for Jan. 29, set in 1951.
Officially, a trace of precipitation was recorded at the Dane County Regional Airport on Tuesday, leaving Madison’s January and 2019 total at 2.54 inches, 1.39 inches above normal. The meteorological winter (December through February) precipitation total (rain plus snow converted to liquid) stayed at 4.64 inches, 1.75 inches above normal.
Madison’s record precipitation for Jan. 29 is 1.84 inches, set in 2013.
Officially, 0.4 inches of snow was recorded at the Dane County Regional Airport on Tuesday, boosting Madison’s January and 2019 snow total to 19.1 inches, 7.1 inches above normal. For meteorological winter, Madison has received 25 inches, 0.5 inches below normal. For the snow season (since July 1), Madison has received 28.4 inches, 1.2 inches below normal.
Madison’s record snowfall for Jan. 29 is 9.1 inches, set in 1909.
Madison’s official snow depth is 9 inches.
The Associated Press contributed to this report