NEW YORK/MILWAUKEE/CHICAGO: A deadly blast of arctic air shattered decades-old temperature records as it enveloped the eastern United States on Tuesday, snarling air, road and rail travel, driving energy prices higher and overwhelming shelters for homeless people.
At least nine deaths have been reported across the country connected with the polar air mass that swept over North America during the past few days. Authorities have put about half of the United States under a wind chill warning or cold weather advisory.
The record-breaking cold snap brought temperatures lower than on the surface of Mars.
Temperatures were expected to be 25 degrees to 35 degrees Fahrenheit (14 to 19 degrees Celsius) below normal from the Midwest to the Southeast, the National Weather Service said.
PJM Interconnection, the agency that oversees the electric grid supplying the mid-Atlantic and parts of the Midwest, said electricity suppliers were struggling to keep up with surging demand as the cold forced some power plants to shut.
“This particular cold is far-reaching, and most of our neighbors are experiencing the extreme conditions we are,” said Michael Kormos, executive vice president for operations at PJM Interconnection.
Oil refiners were also hit, with Marathon Petroleum Corp and Exxon Mobil Corp both experiencing cold-related outages.
In Oklahoma, a depleted supply of propane due to extreme weather led Governor Mary Fallin to declare a state of emergency, waiving licensing requirements for out-of-state transportation companies to allow them to bring in propane.
Homeless shelters and public buildings took in people who were freezing outside.
Daniel Dashner, a 33-year-old homeless man who typically sleeps under a bridge on Milwaukee’s south side, said he opted to seek a spot at a shelter on Monday night.
“Usually if I have four or five blankets, I can stay pretty warm, but when that wind is blowing, I don’t care how many blankets I have, the wind blows right through me,” he said, as temperatures dropped to minus 6 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 21 degrees Celsius).
The extreme cold won’t last much longer, according to AccuWeather.com. The frigid air and “polar vortex” that affected about 240 million people in the United States and southern Canada will depart during the second half of this week, and a far-reaching January thaw will begin, according to AccuWeather.com.
It was so cold in Chicago that the polar bear at the Lincoln Park zoo – who admittedly had not built up the winter fat stores of her wild cousins – was brought inside to warm up.
And in Kentucky, an escaped inmate begged to be let back into prison so he could warm up after spending the night shivering in an abandoned house.
All of Canada and all the US states bar tropical Hawaii recorded temperatures below freezing on Tuesday, even usually sunny and warm Florida and California.
But the most dangerous cold – cold that can cause frostbite in a minute and death in a matter of hours – hit the Midwest, dragged down as the ‘polar vortex’ brought frigid air from the Arctic.
Schools, businesses and government offices were closed. Water mains and household pipes froze. Airplanes were grounded, trains were halted and roads and sidewalks became ice rinks.
The town of Embarrass, Minnesota, recorded the lowest temperature in the United States Tuesday at a frigid -37 Celsius (-35 Fahrenheit).
Then there was the wind chill: a calculation that represents how much colder it feels when the blinding gusts hit you in the face.
That dipped as low as -52 Celsius in Montana and was in the -40 to -50 Celsius range in parts of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
That’s cold enough to toss a cup of boiling water into the air and watch it turn into snow before it hits the ground.
The Mars Rover has been sending back daily temperature readings from its tour of the Red Planet ranging from -25 to -31 degrees Celsius (-13 and -24 degrees Fahrenheit).
“To be fair, though, Mars is still way colder,” the Smithsonian Institute wrote in a blog post. “The Curiosity rover is driving around in a crater at, roughly, the equivalent latitude of Venezuela.”
But then again, Mars is 78 million miles further away from the Sun.
For a more Earthly comparison, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station recorded a temperature of -23 Celsius (-9 Fahrenheit) and a wind chill factor of -35 Celsius (-31 Fahrenheit) on Tuesday.
The brutal chill came as people in the Great Lakes region were still digging out from two massive snow storms which dumped more than two feet of snow.
More than 500 people spent Monday night stuck on a train that was stranded by snowdrifts on the line between Detroit and Chicago.
Commuter rail – and even Chicago’s famed elevated trains – were also knocked out of service by the snow and frigid temperatures froze switches and signals.
Nearly 2,500 flights were cancelled in the United States on Tuesday and 3,400 were delayed. That brought the total of flights cancelled since the latest snowstorm hit on Thursday to more than 18,000.
Toronto’s Pearson Airport temporarily halted ground operations early Tuesday because of “equipment freezing” and out of concern for the safety of airport personnel, it said on its Twitter account.
Police reinforcements were called in to the airport to deal with rising tension among stranded travelers.
The governor of Illinois declared a state of emergency on Monday and called up the National Guard to help rescue stranded motorists as high winds whipped up blinding snow.
Guardsmen were also deployed in Indiana and New York, a Pentagon spokesman told AFP.
Even hardy Canadians were complaining of the cold amid widespread power outages.
Temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius with a wind chill plunged the western Prairies region into a deep freeze.
The streets of Toronto, Montreal and the capital Ottawa were coated with black ice after unusually warm temperatures brought rain on Monday before the mercury plunged overnight.
Meteorologists predict the cold snap will ease of Wednesday; which for many won’t come soon enough. (Agencies)
SOURCE: Agencies (AFP/AP)