From Jan. 6-11, a cold front descended from the Arctic with temperatures so brutally cold that it pretty much broke the psyche of anyone who ventured outside. The cold moved all the way down to Tampa, Fla., and Houston. Record low temperatures were recorded across the United States, as much of the Midwest was colder than the North Pole. But that was nothing: Even further north, in the Canadian prairie, it was colder than it was on the planet Mars. The cold and its associated snowstorms caused some $500 million in damage and claimed 21 lives.
How cold was it? It was so cold that the entire state of Minnesota canceled school for two days purely because it was too brutal to go outside. It was so cold that zookeepers were actually bringing their polar bears inside. For cheap thrills, people went outside and threw pots of boiling water in the air just to watch it instantly turn into snow.
And yet, it all could have been so much worse. Just imagine, for a moment, if the cold had lasted two weeks. A month. Two months. A year. It sounds impossible, but let’s not forget that there once was a time when this kind of cold was inescapable for the northern reaches of the globe. Some 15,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene Ice Age, young humanity found itself in the kind of deep freeze that destroyed entire species, and could have taken us with it, too.
As sheets of ice 3 and 4 km thick covered everything in North America down to the Great Lakes, and the entire northern coastal areas of Europe, the prey species we lived on were wiped out. Humans themselves had to grow larger, faster and stronger. They had to develop better tools and technology. They had to figure out how to hunt animals they never had hunted before. And through all of that, when the ice retreated, and the warm times came again, a different type of humankind walked the earth — one radically more able to shape its own destiny against the cruel forces of nature.