‘Life-threatening’ cold bites US Midwest

January 06, 2014 - 5:01:21 am

A car’s windshield wipers stick out of its snow cover after a storm dropped up to 7 inches of snow in New York City.

MILWAUKEE: Residents of the Midwestern United States yesterday braced for the coldest weather in two decades, temperatures that forecasters warned would be life-threatening.

Icy conditions snarled travel across the region and thousands of flights were canceled or delayed and some officials preemptively closed schools.

“The coldest temperatures in almost two decades will spread into the northern and central US today behind an arctic cold front,” the National Weather Service said in an advisory posted on its website on Sunday. “Combined with gusty winds, these temperatures will result in life-threatening wind chill values as low as 60 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit/ -51 Celsius).” In weather that cold, frostbite can set in on uncovered skin in a matter of minutes, experts warned. 

A “polar vortex” will affect more than half of the continental US with wind chill warnings stretching from Montana to Alabama. The vortex is an anti-clockwise-rotating pool of cold, dense air, and is behind the startling forecast: -31C in Fargo, North Dakota, -35C in International Falls, Minnesota, and -26C in Indianapolis and Chicago. The coldest temperature reported in the lower 48 states yesterday was -38C in Crane Lake, Minnesota, according to the National Weather Service.

“It’s just a dangerous cold,” NWS meteorologist Butch Dye said in Missouri. Snow preceded the polar air and was expected to fall throughout from Michigan to Kentucky.  

Southern states are bracing for possible record temperatures too. Meteorologists in central and north Georgia say temperatures could drop into the single digits fahrenheit (-17 to - 13C) by tomorrow, accompanied by wind chills as low as -26C. 

“Winter Storm Ion is spreading a swath of heavy snow across the Midwest, and its icy tentacles will also bring wintry weather into the south and parts of the east. Following closely behind Ion will be a blast of brutally cold air,” said The Weather Channel in forecast.

The weather created travel problems. In New York City, John F Kennedy International Airport was closed for a couple of hours after a Bombardier jet skidded off a taxiway soon after landing. The Delta Connection flight had landed safely after arriving from Toronto with 35 passengers on board, and no injuries were reported.

In Missouri, the state Department of Transportation warned that most major roadways were snow-covered, it was too cold for rock salt to be very effective and the wind was whipping, causing whiteout conditions.

About half of all flights arriving and departing Chicago O’Hare International Airport had been cancelled yesterday, according to FlightAware, which tracks flight statistics. Nationwide, about 2,855 flights had been delayed nationwide by midday and 2,332 had been cancelled.

Officials in several states asked residents to use extra precautions when outdoors. Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton has ordered all public schools in the state closed today to protect children from dangerously cold weather. Chicago schools will be open today despite the cold, but officials, in a statement, advised parents to “use their own discretion in deciding whether to send their child to school.” 

Between six inches and one foot (15-30cm) of snow was predicted from Chicago to Detroit, AccuWeather said, while icy sleet and rain was forecast for much of the Northeast.

Chicago, Detroit and St Louis all saw more snowfall overnight, while National Football League playoff showdown between the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers at the open-air Lambeau Field in Wisconsin looked set to be one of the coldest NFL games in history.

The Packers say they will help fans battle the big freeze by handing out free coffee, hot chocolate and hand warmers, while supporters would also be allowed to bring blankets and sleeping bags. 

Added to the mix was freezing rain forecast to hit the south and east, affecting New York and Washington, with the extreme weather expected to continue into the early part of the week in many places across the country.

Among the deaths blamed on the weather was a worker killed on Friday when he was crushed by a 100-foot (30-metre) pile of salt being prepared to treat roads in the Philadelphia area, media reports said. A 71-year-old woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease froze to death after walking out into the cold and getting lost in northern New York state, according to authorities.