January 4, 2014

Dangerous frigid blast due Sunday, Monday

Starting Sunday, a “polar vortex” will bring double-digit below-zero temperatures to the Kansas City area and much of the Midwest.

The weather warnings are dire: Life-threatening wind chills. Historic cold outbreak.

Winter is normally cold, but starting Sunday, tundra-like temperatures are poised to deliver a rare and potentially dangerous sledgehammer blow to much of the Midwest, driving temperatures so far below zero that records will shatter.

One reason? A “polar vortex,” as one meteorologist calls it, will send cold air piled up at the North Pole down to the United States, funneling it as far south as the Gulf Coast.

The temperature predictions are startling: 25 below zero in Fargo, N.D.; minus-31 in International Falls, Minn.; and 15 below in Indianapolis and Chicago.

In the Kansas City area, the temperature Sunday night and Monday night will be between 5 and 10 below with parts of northern Missouri reaching 15 below.

At those temperatures, exposed skin can get frostbitten in minutes and hypothermia can quickly set in because wind chills in parts of the Midwest could hit 50, 60 or even 70 below zero.

Temperature records will likely be broken during the short yet forceful deep freeze that will begin in many places on Sunday and extend into early next week. That’s thanks to a perfect combination of the jet stream, cold surface temperatures and the polar vortex — a counterclockwise-rotating pool of cold, dense air, said Ryan Maue, of Tallahassee, Fla., a meteorologist for Weather Bell.

“All the ingredients are there for a near-record or historic cold outbreak,” he said. “If you’re under 40 (years old), you’ve not seen this stuff before.”

Snow already on the ground and fresh powder expected in some places ahead of the cold air will reduce the sun’s heating effect, so nighttime lows will plummet thanks to strong northwest winds that will deliver the Arctic blast, Maue said. And there’s no warming effect from the Gulf of Mexico to counteract the cold air, he said.

Locally, more snow is likely this afternoon and evening, with new accumulations of 2 inches possible. But then we brace for a super blast of arctic air that will bring cold like we haven’t felt in years and “life-threatening” wind chills of 30 to 35 degrees below zero, according to the National Weather Service.

Subzero wind chill readings are expected to stick around until midweek, but daytime highs should climb back into the 30s by Wednesday and Thursday, according to the weather service forecast.

Although frigid, we’re not expected to break any temperature records. The coldest Jan. 5 on record in Kansas City was minus-15 in 1924, and the coldest Jan. 6 was minus-13 in 1912.

Area school superintendents will be watching weather reports and, in many cases, consulting with each other Sunday evening to see whether the situation looks dangerous enough to make an early call on closing schools for Monday. Otherwise, the decision will be made early Monday morning.

Many districts in the area already have Monday set aside as a training day for teachers, so they won’t have to make a call on the weather, at least until Tuesday.

Extreme cold will hamper road crews’ ability to keep streets and highways clear.

“At 30 degrees, one pound of salt will melt 46 pounds of ice, but the same pound of salt will melt less than four pounds of ice when it’s zero degrees,” said Beth Wright, state maintenance engineer, in an announcement from the Missouri Department of Transportation.

Winter conditions elsewhere in the country contributed to a handful of flight delays and cancellations Friday at Kansas City International Airport. The city Aviation Department encourages travelers to check with the airlines or flykci.com for cancellations, delays and gate information.

The cold blast will sweep through parts of New England, where residents will have just dug out from a snowstorm and the frigid temperatures that followed.

At least 14 deaths were blamed on the storm as it swept across the nation’s eastern half.

While the snowfall had all but stopped by Friday morning across the hard-hit Philadelphia-to-Boston corridor and many highways and streets were soon plowed and reopened, temperatures were in the single digits and teens, with wind chills well below zero.

“The snow is easy to move because the air was so cold when it snowed that it’s sort of light and fluffy stuff — but, uh, it’s cold,” Nick Minton said as he cleared the entrance to his garage and sidewalk in Arlington, Mass. “That’s the main part. It’s cold.”

The heaviest snow fell north of Boston in Boxford, Mass., which received nearly 2 feet. Nearly 18 inches fell in Boston and in western New York near Rochester. Lakewood, N.J., got 10 inches, and New York’s Central Park 6. Philadelphia got more than 6 inches.

Even places accustomed to normally mild to warmer winters will see a plunge in temperatures early next week, including Atlanta where the high is expected to hover in the mid-20s on Tuesday.

“This one happens to be really big, and it’s going to dive deep into the continental U.S. And all that cold air is going to come with it,” said Sally Johnson, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls.

It’s relatively uncommon to have such frigid air blanket so much of the United States — maybe once a decade or every couple of decades, Maue said.

But in the long run the deep temperature dives are less meaningful for comparison to other storms than daytime highs that are below-zero and long cold spells, he said.

And so far, this winter is proving to be a cold one.

“Right now for the winter we will have had two significant shots of major Arctic air, and we’re only through the first week of January. And we had a pretty cold December,” Maue said.

Cities and states are already taking precautions. Minnesota called off school for Monday statewide, the first such closing in 17 years, because of projected highs in the minus teens and lows as cold as 30 below. Milwaukee and Madison, Wis., students also won’t be in class Monday. North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple urged superintendents to keep children’s safety in making the decision after the state forecast called for “life threatening wind chills” through Tuesday morning.

And though this cold spell will last just a few days as warmer air comes behind, it likely will freeze over the Great Lakes and other bodies of water, meaning frigid temperatures will likely last the rest of winter, Maue said.

“It raises the chances for future cold,” he said, adding it could include next month’s Super Bowl in New York.

Matt Campbell and Joe Robertson of The Star, and Carson Walker of The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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