A powerful winter storm already blamed for fatal car crashes, widespread power outages and dangerously cold temperatures will keep pummeling the United States with freezing temperatures through Christmas Day.
The massive footprint of the winter weather and its timing during a busy holiday travel week makes the arctic blast particularly dangerous. The National Weather Service on Friday said its warnings and advisories covered about 200 million people — “one of the greatest extents of winter weather warnings and advisories ever,” forecasters said.
The dangers are highly localized and not limited to snowfall. Blizzard conditions created whiteouts and stranded motorists in the Buffalo, New York, area. But on the other side of the state, flooding was the concern, with water rescues in Queens, a New York City borough on Long Island.
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Meanwhile, bone-numbing wind chills extended throughout the country. Every state in the contiguous U.S. will experience minimum wind chills below freezing on Christmas or before, the weather service says.
The storm’s death toll quickly grew Friday night, with authorities in Ohio, Missouri and Kansas blaming weather for fatal crashes. In Ohio, dozens of vehicles were involved in a pileup that killed at least 4.
Only a few regions in the U.S. are expected to escape bitter cold over Christmas — parts of California, Oregon, Arizona and Florida are among the few spots in the nation that won’t experience wind chills below freezing, the weather service predicts.
Other impacts from the storm kept accumulating Friday. Power outage reports swelled up to over a million and thousands of flights were canceled amid a busy holiday travel season.
What is the polar vortex?
According to the weather service, the polar vortex is a giant, circular area of rotating cold air and low pressure that surrounds both of Earth’s poles. In the U.S., focus remains on the North Pole’s polar vortex – because it impacts weather in the Northern Hemisphere.
People may only talk about the polar vortex when it sends frigid temperatures south of the Arctic – but it always exists, the weather service notes, its strength changing between seasons.
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When the polar vortex is stable and strong, it typically stays near the North Pole. But when it weakens or splits, frigid air can escape, funneling freezing temperatures farther south to the U.S., Europe and Asia.
The polar vortex is to blame for this weekend’s plummeting temperatures .
The NWS forecasts that “blizzard conditions and Arctic Blast” will impact the Midwest to Northeast Saturday through Monday. From east of the Rockies to the Appalachians, temperatures are predicted to be 25 to 35 degrees below average.
Thousands of flight delays, cancellations on Christmas Eve
Travelers heading to airports on Christmas Eve are facing thousands of flight delays and cancellations.
FlightAware, an online tracker, reported Saturday as of 11 a.m. ET. more than 3,900 delays and almost 1,900 cancellations for flights within, into or out of the U.S.
FlightAware’s “Misery Map” showed more than 1,000 delays and over 370 cancellations seen between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. ET Saturday – with Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD), Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) and Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) experiencing the highest number of flight delays and cancellations as of Saturday morning.
Friday saw even more flights impacted – with FlightAware reporting a total more than 11,500 U.S. flight delays and over 5,900 U.S. flight cancellations.
Buffalo sees record snow in single day
In New York, the city of Buffalo saw stunning record levels of snow and rain on Friday – and officials are warning residents about dangerous conditions for the holiday weekend.
According to the weather service, Buffalo reported a daily snowfall of 22.3 inches Friday – almost doubling the old record of 12.6 inches set in 1976. The city also reported 1.98 inches of rain on Friday, crushing the 1876 record of 1.73 inches.
“In Buffalo, this storm will likely at least jump near the top of the list of worst blizzards in the city’s history, if not even becoming the worst,” meteorologist Jake Sojda said in an AccuWeather article. “Four to 6 feet of snow will fall by Sunday and coupled with wind gusts approaching hurricane force (74 mph or greater) to create enormous drifts and impossible travel.”
Power outages leave more than 1.7 million in the dark
North Carolina, Tennessee and Maine reported the highest number of power outages Saturday.
In Tennessee and North Carolina utility companies initiated temporary outages in efforts to save energy.
Charlotte-based Duke Energy announced controlled, 15–30-minute blackouts Saturday morning. In announcing the outages, the company noted , “Due to the extreme cold temperatures and subsequent demand for power around much of the nation, electricity supplies are very tight.”
Memphis, Light, Gas and Water also initiated rolling blackouts early Saturday to conserve electricity and keep the electric grid stable as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the struggling regional electricity provider, told its local power companies to shed electric load.
The outages, which last roughly 30 minutes, will not impact critical facilities like hospitals, airports, pumping stations and sewerage plants, the utility company said.
“This is a challenging situation but one we are actively managing,” Don Moul, Tennessee Valley Authority’s chief operating officer, said in a video posted late Friday.
Authorities urge people to stay home in many areas
Michigan State Police on Friday warned travelers to stay off the roads.
“Most roads are icy and impacted by blowing snow, which is causing low visibility,” police posted on Facebook. “If travel is not necessary, please stay home.”
Some forecasters have said the storm’s danger doesn’t primarily come from the amount of snowfall — it’s a combination of snow, wind, ice and frigid temperatures that were concerning in many areas.
“Don’t focus too much on the snow totals … Significant blowing and drifting will be occurring. Avoid travel!” the weather service in Buffalo said Friday afternoon.
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The weather service office reported received numerous reports Friday night of people being stranded along roadways.
When will the winter storm be over?
Not before Christmas.
Federal forecasters expect a huge mass of cold air to continue affecting the nation into next week. Those temperatures are a concern from the Dakotas to Florida even on Monday and Tuesday.
“Wind chills will still bottom out in the 20s and low 30s Monday and Tuesday morning for most locations in the South outside of south Florida,” a Friday forecast says.
But low temperatures are forecasters’ primary concern for most of the country by Monday. Flooding, rain and other hazards are only expected to affect more localized regions.
New York hit with ‘everything’; numerous stranded on roadways
Whiteouts and flooding have left New Yorkers stranded or trapped in their vehicles as the state was hit with a “kitchen sink” storm, said New York Gov. Kathy Hochul during a press briefing Friday.
“It is throwing everything at us but the kitchen sink. We’ve had ice, flooding, snow, freezing temperatures, and everything that Mother Nature could wallop at us this weekend,” Hochul said during the briefing.
Parts of the state have been blasted with snow while other parts faced storm flooding that inundated roads, homes and businesses.
In Queens, a New York City borough on Long Island, police officers were seen pulling stranded motorists out of knee-deep water.
According to the city’s Emergency Management Commissioner Zachary Iscol, police have done a number of rescues from Friday but none were life-threatening.
In the western part of New York, the weather service in Buffalo received numerous reports Friday night of people being stranded along roadways amid ongoing whiteouts and wind chills dropping 20 degrees below.
What is wind chill?
Meteorologists define wind chill as how cold it feels while outdoors, and it’s based on the rate of heat loss from exposed skin caused by the wind-and-cold combination, according to the National Weather Service. Increased wind draws heat from the body, which then lowers the temperature of the skin and internal body.
“Frostbite may develop on exposed skin in as few as 10-20 mins, and hypothermia can quickly develop if you’re not dressed for the cold,” weather service experts in Chicago warned Thursday.
Contributing: The Associated Press. Doyle Rice, USA TODAY. Samuel Hardiman, Memphis Commercial Appeal.
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