How Cold Is It in the Midwest Today? This Cold.

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Jan. 6 2014 1:28 PM

It's So Cold in the Midwest, a Pot of Boiling Water Turned Instantly to Snow

How cold is it today in the Midwest? Cold enough that when meteorologist Eric Holthaus tossed a pot of boiling water into the air outside his home in Viroqua, Wisconsin, this happened:

To be precise, the temperature at the time was minus 21, with a wind chill of minus 51. Wisconsin is part of a huge swath of the United States that is seeing its coldest weather in decades today, thanks to an Arctic air mass barrelling down from the north. The Weather Channel describes it as "life-threatening cold," with temperatures hitting minus 31 in North Dakota and northern Minnesota.


Holthaus isn't the first to perform the boiling-water-to-snow trick. But he told me it was his first time attempting it—he just moved to Wisconsin from Arizona four months ago. "I didn't expect it to work, actually," he said.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

You might think that boiling water would be harder to instantly freeze than a pot of cold water. In fact, Holthaus tried cold water immediately afterward, and it stayed in liquid form. It's the gradient between the hot water and the freezing air that makes the trick work, climatologist Mark Seeley explained in a 2011 LiveScience explainer on the phenomenon. The boiling water has relatively low viscosity, so when you throw it into the air, it breaks into tiny droplets that vaporize almost instantly due to their high ratio of surface area to volume. But cold air can't hold much water vapor, so it quickly clings to tiny sodium or calcium particles and crystallizes.

Similar science—and even more frigid air—is at work in another recent video, which shows what happens when you try to shoot water from a Super Soaker in minus-41-degree weather in South Porcupine, Ontario. (The inevitable clever comment: Geez, how cold is it in North Porcupine?)

One other fun fact about today's extreme weather in the United States: While much of the country is seeing 20-year lows, parts of California are enjoying record high temperatures. And it's 83 degrees in Miami as I write this.

Previously in Slate:

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.



Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.