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Subzero cold breaks 1936 record; Chicagoans break out cold-weather gear

As commuters — layered as thickly as Russian nesting dolls — scurried into the Logan Square L station, one man stood out front in an ominous-looking coat, seemingly impervious to the record-setting arctic cold.

For Edward Eastman, 41, the weather presented the rare chance to sport the East German officer’s coat he acquired from a military surplus store.

“Even with Chicago winters it’s hard to be cold enough for this coat,” Eastman said with a smile as he waited for his girlfriend to arrive from her overnight shift with a downtown financial firm.

“It’s heavy-duty wool and leather,” he said with the glee of a man prepared for the elements.

A 79-year-old record low temperature was broken on Thursday as a blast of dangerously frigid Arctic air gripped the Chicago area.

The temperature at O’Hare Airport was 8 degrees below zero at 6:18 a.m., breaking the record set for Feb. 19 in 1936 by 1 degree, according to the National Weather Service. The wind chill at O’Hare was a brutal 28 degrees below zero.

Alfred Kim just wants to know when spring will arrive.  |  Mitch Dudek

Alfred Kim just wants to know when spring will arrive. | Mitch Dudek

“When is spring coming?” asked Alfred Kim, his glasses nearly opaque. “That’s really the only question in my mind. When is winter over? It’s brutal.”

Kim, who lives in Logan Square and works for a hedge fund, was not surprised the negative temps set a record. “It’s brutal,” he repeated.

Wind chills paired with 20 mph gusts could make the temperature feel as cold as 30 degrees below zero on Thursday, according to a wind chill advisory issued at 6 p.m. Wednesday. The advisory is slated to run through noon Thursday.

The coldest day on record was Jan. 20, 1985, when the temperature was minus-27 with a wind chill of 77 degrees below zero, said Amy Seeley, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

This February is on track to be the fifth-coldest on record in Chicago, according to the weather service. The coldest February in Chicago was in 1875, when the mean temperature was 14.6 degrees, according to weather service records. The average temperature so far this February is 16.9 degrees, Seeley said. (February 2014′s average temperature of 17.3 degrees made it the ninth-coldest on record.)

The top ten coldest Februaries on record in Chicago are:

  1. 1875
  2. 1936
  3. 1979
  4. 1978
  5. 1895
  6. 1901
  7. 1905
  8. 1904
  9. 2014
  10. 1885

The low could drop anywhere between 6 and 10 degrees below zero, Seeley said. The high temperature will hardly be that — the weather service expects temperatures to hover between 3 and 7 degrees.

Chicago Public Schools canceled classes for Thursday in anticipation of the weather.

In such brutal weather, frostbite can set in to exposed skin within minutes.

A relatively balmy Friday will see temperatures inch past 20 degrees, while highs could thaw to 30 on Saturday, according to the weather service.

Contributing: Jordan Owen, Sun-Times Media Wire

Waiting for a bus when the wind-chill factor is 30 degrees below zero is nothing to smile about. | Craig M. Newman/Sun-Times

Waiting for a bus when the wind-chill factor is 30 degrees below zero is nothing to smile about. | Craig M. Newman/Sun-Times

Brutal cold and dangerous wind chills made waiting for trains and buses a painful part of Thursday morning's commute. | Craig M. Newman / Sun-Times

Brutal cold and dangerous wind chills made waiting for trains and buses a painful part of Thursday morning’s commute. | Craig M. Newman / Sun-Times