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How cold is it when the economy breaks?

A woman walks down the street in the Back Bay a day after a winter storm January 4, 2014 in Boston.

Schoolchildren are home by the millions. Flights are grounded by the thousands. Wind chills are being measured in the negative double digits. The great Polar Vortex of '14 is making its mark on much of the country, and the economy. Because a lot of things we take for granted day in and day out -- from starting the car to turning on the faucet -- were a little harder today.

“Plumbers get really busy,” says Nolan Doesken, state climatologist in Colorado. “This is the ideal situation for frozen pipes, when it’s not only really cold, but really windy to go with that cold.”

Jeff Cherwenka is used to working in extreme cold. He spent six seasons doing research at the South Pole. Now he’s back at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where it was minus 17 degrees this morning.

“It looks like it’s minus 9 Fahrenheit at the South Pole today, so it’s actually colder here than at the South Pole,” he says.

At these temperatures, Cherwenka says, plastic and steel become so brittle they can break. Car batteries stop working.

“There’s a lot of little inconveniences,” he says, “but if it’s your car and it’s not starting then it’s a big inconvenience, right?”

At the high-tech end, electronics can fail. Kevin Gutknecht with the Minnesota Department of Transportation says things got dicey today on a reversible toll road on the west side of Minneapolis.

“We call it reversible because it goes in one direction in the morning, and another direction in the afternoon,” he says. “One of the gates on that quit working because of the cold.”

Below ground, water mains break. Even sewers can freeze. Shipping slows down in the Great Lakes. Diesel fuel can congeal.

“Things just break when it’s cold,” says Wilf Nixon, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa. “Unfortunately, they’re under more stress and it’s when you need them most…when they’re most likely to fail on you.”

That includes humans, too. We don’t work so well when it only takes a few minutes in the cold to end up with frostbite.

Fatigue doesn’t help. In Elgin, Il., public works superintendent Daniel Rich says his workers have been doing 12-hour shifts since before Christmas, removing snow, de-icing streets and fixing water main breaks.

“You can tell the guys are getting a little tired, and as a result of that they slow down a quarter step,” he says.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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