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Fri Oct 24 11:35:10 SAST 2014

Polar vortex brings fatal freeze to US

© The Sunday Telegraph | 06 January, 2014 00:00
Laborers shovel  the snow off of the sidewalk in the midtown neighborhood of Detroit
Laborers shovel the snow off of the sidewalk in the midtown neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan. A blast of Arctic air gripped the vast middle of the United States on Monday, with the coldest temperatures in two decades threatening lives, forcing businesses and schools to close and canceling thousands of flights.
Image by: REBECCA COOK / REUTERS

The US is spending the first days of 2014 gripped by record-breaking cold and blighted by blizzards as a polar vortex of freezing Arctic weather sweeps across it.

About 140million people - slightly less than half the population - faced sub-zero conditions as storm Hercules overran the northern states and pushed into the usually balmy Deep South.

In Minnesota, the temperature was predicted to reach -35C yesterday but meteorologists warned that the wind-chill factor could make it feel twice as cold, causing frostbite to exposed parts of the body within minutes.

Eleven people have died in weather-related incidents in the past week, including a 71-year-old woman with Alzheimer's who wandered from her home in upstate New York and was found frozen to death only 100m away.

Yesterday's gridiron game between the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers was expected to be the coldest ever played, as temperatures, with wind chill, were predicted to plummet to as low as -46C.

That would break the record held by the 1967 "Ice Bowl", when the Packers narrowly defeated the Dallas Cowboys in conditions so cold that quarterback Bart Starr got frostbite on his fingers.

The referee attempted to blow his whistle only to find that his lips had frozen onto the metal.

The snow has led to around 4000 flights being cancelled, including many from London to New York. Thousands of stranded passengers were holed up in New York's airports as they waited for conditions to improve.

But the real cold was expected last night, when a "polar vortex" of freezing, dense air that has collected at the North Pole was due to reach the mainland, reinforcing already frigid conditions.

"All the ingredients are there for a near-record or historic cold outbreak," said Ryan Maue, a meteorologist for Weather Bell.

"If you're under 40, you've not seen this stuff before."

Schools across the northern US will be closed for the first part of next week and the government of North Dakota warned of "life-threatening chills" tomorrow.

Though the cold spell is expected to pass within days it could leave lingering effects, including freezing over the Great Lakes on the Canadian border, which could exacerbate cold weather for weeks.

The cold is expected to drive as far south as Florida, where single-digit temperatures are almost unheard of.

Brutal conditions are expected in Detroit, which has had only five days in living memory when temperatures stayed below freezing all day. Tomorrow is expected to add a sixth.

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