Americas

Thursday 31 July 2014

America's coldest day of the century: Cities shut down by life-threatening temperatures of -52C

Tim Walker

Published 07/01/2014|12:10

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Laborers shovel the snow off of a footpath in the midtown neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan

THE coldest weather conditions for two decades show little sign of relenting in parts of America, as forecasters predict freezing temperatures could make today the coldest on record in the 21st century.

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It sounds like a plot device from a bad disaster movie, but for vast swathes of North America, the weather phenomenon known as a “polar vortex” has become all too real, bringing misery to millions across the US and Canada, along with the lowest temperatures seen in almost twenty years.

More than 3,000 flights had been cancelled across the region by 10am yesterday morning. A further 3,700 had already been cancelled during the weekend. Schools were closed in major cities such as Chicago and St Louis, and residents advised to remain indoors.

Matt Rogers, president of Commodity Weather Group in Bethesda, Maryland, told Bloomberg today could beat 16 January, 2009, the coldest day of the century.

The Governor of Minnesota closed all the schools in his state, while the mayor of Indianapolis, Greg Ballard, banned driving except in emergencies – the first time the city has issued such a strict travel warning since 1978. Mr Ballard said: “This extreme cold poses a serious health and safety risk and for that reason the city is asking people to proactively prepare.”

In many areas, particularly in the Midwest and Northern Plains, the cold was considered life-threatening. Hypothermia is a major risk at temperatures of below -25C, while frostbite can take hold in less than 10 minutes at -37C. At  45C, uncovered skin could freeze within five minutes. The windchill in Comertown, Montana, close to the border with Canada, is expected make temperatures feel as low as -52C.

Chicago’s National Weather Service office reported that Monday’s low of -26C at O’Hare International Airport beat a record set in 1884 and equalled in 1988. In Fargo, the largest city in North Dakota, temperatures sank below  35C. Motorists were advised in that state and its neighbour South Dakota to carry survival kits and a charged mobile phone in case they found themselves stranded in the perilous weather.

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 07:  Passengers heading into downtown wait on an "L" platform for the train to arrive in below zero temperatures on January 7, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. Platforms were crowded and trains were delayed because doors on the trains kept freezing open. Chicago is experiencing its third consecutive day of below zero temperatures.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) *** BESTPIX ***
Passengers heading into downtown wait on an "L" platform for the train to arrive in below zero temperatures on January 7, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. Platforms were crowded and trains were delayed because doors on the trains kept freezing open. Chicago is experiencing its third consecutive day of below zero temperatures.
NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 07:  Icicles hang from a fountain along Canal Street as temperatures in the area plummeted below freezing on January 7, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Highs are expected be in the upper 30's in metro New Orleans. A "polar vortex" carrying Arctic air and wind gusts of up to 50 mph has engulfed much of the Northeast making for life threatening weather conditions.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Icicles hang from a fountain along Canal Street as temperatures in the area plummeted below freezing on January 7, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Highs are expected be in the upper 30's in metro New Orleans. A "polar vortex" carrying Arctic air and wind gusts of up to 50 mph has engulfed much of the Northeast making for life threatening weather conditions.
A woman is bundled up against the cold weather in Indianapolis, Indiana January 6, 2014. A blast of Arctic air gripped the vast middle of the United States on Monday, bringing the coldest temperatures felt in two decades, causing at least four deaths, forcing businesses and schools to close and canceling thousands of flights. The polar vortex, the coldest air in the Northern hemisphere that hovers over the polar region in winter but can be pushed south, was moving toward the East Coastwhere temperatures were expected to fall into Tuesday.  REUTERS/Nate Chute (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENVIRONMENT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A woman is bundled up against the cold weather in Indianapolis, Indiana January 6, 2014. A blast of Arctic air gripped the vast middle of the United States on Monday, bringing the coldest temperatures felt in two decades, causing at least four deaths, forcing businesses and schools to close and canceling thousands of flights. The polar vortex, the coldest air in the Northern hemisphere that hovers over the polar region in winter but can be pushed south, was moving toward the East Coastwhere temperatures were expected to fall into Tuesday. REUTERS/Nate Chute

At least 13 people are thought to have died as a result of the extreme conditions already, including several road accidents, a man who succumbed to hypothermia in Wisconsin, and a worker crushed by a massive pile of road salt at a storage facility in Philadelphia. An elderly Alzheimer’s sufferer from rural New York state wandered out into the snow; she was later found dead from the cold, around 100 yards from her home.

The arctic freeze only exacerbated the problems caused by a weekend of heavy snowfall that had covered parts of Canada and the northern US in up to 60cm. In Detroit, where 25cm fell, the heavy snow was thought to have caused a roof to collapse, though no one was killed in the incident.

Meanwhile in St Louis, shopping centres, cinemas, restaurants and several major tourist sites were shuttered, including the zoo and the city’s famous Gateway Arch. Even a nearby ski resort, Hidden Valley, was forced to close its slopes.

In Newfoundland, Canada, a power outage on Sunday left 90,000 homes without electricity, a pattern repeated in several locations across the US. Though northern states were the worst affected, record-breaking low temperatures were also expected as far south as Atlanta. While farmers in South Dakota worried about keeping their cattle alive through the dangerous chill, down in Florida, citrus farmers were reported to be equally concerned about the effect of a prolonged freeze on their crops.

There was at least one good news story to emerge from the bad weather, however. The family of a missing New York man, 20-year-old Nicholas Simmons, found him sleeping rough on the streets of Washington, DC, thanks to a newspaper gallery illustrating the effects of the polar vortex.

Mr Simmons reportedly left his home in upstate New York last Wednesday evening. His family reported him missing and set up a Facebook page to plead for help in finding him. Then, on Sunday, a photograph of a young homeless man warming himself on a Washington steam grate, taken by the Associated Press photographer Jacquelyn Martin, appeared in a photo-spread in USA Today.

The young homeless man was Mr Simmons, whose mother spotted the image and contacted Ms Martin and Washington DC police, who found the young man still in the area where he had been photographed. He was taken to hospital and later reunited with his parents.

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