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At least 12 dead as polar vortex spreads into US Northeast

  • Published at 11:33 am January 31st, 2019
Poler vortex-United States
A pedestrian stops to take a photo by Chicago River, as bitter cold phenomenon called the polar vortex has descended on much of the central and eastern United States, in Chicago, Illinois, US, January 29, 2019 Reuters

A forecast for warmer weather by the weekend offered little comfort to those enduring icy conditions, brutal winds and temperatures as low as -34°C (-30°F)

The blast of Arctic air that brought record-breaking cold, causing at least a dozen deaths and canceling or delaying thousands of flights in the US Midwest, spread eastward on Thursday, bringing frigid misery to the Northeast.

A forecast for warmer weather by the weekend offered little comfort to those enduring icy conditions, brutal winds and temperatures as low as -34°C (-30°F).

"This morning is some of the coldest of the temperatures across the Upper Midwest, and we still have some dangerous wind chills," Andrew Orrison, a forecaster for the National Weather Service, said in a phone interview.

In Minnesota and Upper Michigan, temperatures will be at -29°C (-20°F) on Thursday and parts of North Dakota can expect -30°F, forecasters warned.

The bitter cold was caused by displacement of the polar vortex, a stream of air that normally spins around the stratosphere over the North Pole but whose current was disrupted. It pushed eastward and states including Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania experienced bitterly cold temperatures. The overnight low in Boston was at -21°C (-5°F), according to the National Weather Service.

"This morning is the worst of the worst in terms of the cold," Orrison said. "It'll be the coldest outbreak of Arctic air [so far this winter] for the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast."

It has been more than 20 years since a similar Arctic blast covered a swath of the Midwest and Northeast, according to the weather service.

The cold has caused at least 12 deaths since Saturday across the Midwest, according to officials and news media reports. Some died in weather-related traffic accidents, others from apparent exposure to the elements.

Videos this week showed boiling water freezing as it was tossed in the air in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and transit workers in Chicago setting fire to train tracks to keep them from locking up.

Even parts of the South, such as the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee and upper Georgia, will be in the single digits, the weather service said.

More than 30 record lows were shattered across the Midwest. Some areas only saw a high of -23°C (-10°F) on Wednesday.

The lowest temperature recorded that day was -40°C (-40°F) in International Falls, Minnesota, just south of Canada. The city, dubbed the "Icebox of the Nation," saw temperatures drop another 5°F early on Thursday.

US homes and businesses used record amounts of natural gas for heating on Wednesday, according to preliminary results from financial data provider Refinitiv.

But the picture was set to change. By the weekend, Chicago, which experienced near-record cold of -30°C (-23°F) on Wednesday and -29°C (-21°F) on Thursday, was expected to bask in snow-melting highs in the mid-40s to low 50s Fahrenheit. So will other parts of the Midwest.

"It's going to feel quite balmy in comparison," Orrison said.

The weather caused hundreds of traffic accidents, including a chain-reaction collision of about two dozen cars in Grand Rapids, Michigan, during a whiteout on Wednesday, local media reported.

More than 2,500 flights were canceled and more than 3,500 were delayed on Thursday morning, most of them out of Chicago's O'Hare International and Midway International airports, according to the flight tracking site FlightAware.com.

General Motors Co suspended operations at 11 Michigan plants and its Warren Tech Center after a utility made an emergency appeal to users to conserve natural gas after extreme cold and a fire at a compressor station. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV also canceled a shift on Thursday at two of its plants.

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