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'Polar vortex' weather grips US

06 January 2014, 08:54

Chicago - Icy, snow-covered roads and high winds made travel treacherous on Sunday from the Dakotas to Michigan and Missouri as much of the US braced for dangerously cold temperatures that could break records.

A whirlpool of frigid, dense air known as a "polar vortex" was expected to suppress temperatures in more than half of the continental US starting on Monday and Tuesday, with wind chill warnings stretching from Montana to Alabama.

The forecast is extreme: -31°C in Fargo, North Dakota, -35°C in International Falls, Minnesota, and -26°C in Indianapolis and Chicago. Wind chills, what it feels like outside when high winds are factored into the temperature could drop much lower. Northeastern Montana was warned on Sunday of wind chills up to -51°C.

"It's just a dangerous cold", National Weather Service meteorologist Butch Dye in Missouri said.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard upgraded the city's travel emergency level to "red", making it illegal for anyone to drive except for emergency personnel, emergency purposes or seeking shelter. The last time the city issued a travel warning was during the 1978 blizzard.

Travel problems

Several Midwestern states received up to 30cm of new snow on Sunday. The National Weather Service said snowfall at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago totalled more than 28cm as of 18:00 on Sunday, the most since the 2 February 2011 storm.

In Chicago, temperatures were expected to bottom out around -26°C overnight, likely setting a daily record, National Weather Service meteorologist Ed Fenelon said. Earlier on Sunday, temperatures sank to -29°C and colder in northern Minnesota and Grand Forks, North Dakota.

The deep freeze extended into Canada where parts of eastern Alberta and northwest Ontario were under wind chill warnings. In Winnipeg, Manitoba, temperatures fell to -30°C on Sunday.

It hasn't been this cold for almost two decades in many parts of the US. Frostbite and hypothermia can set in quickly at -26 to -34.4°C.

Travel problems started early on Sunday. In New York City, a plane from Toronto landed at Kennedy International Airport and then slid into snow on a taxiway. No one was hurt, though the airport temporarily suspended operations because of icy runways.

Schools closed 

About 1 300 flights had been cancelled on Sunday at O'Hare and Midway international airports in Chicago, aviation officials said, and there also were cancellations at Logan International Airport in Boston and Tennessee's Memphis and Nashville international airports.

School was called off on Monday for the entire state of Minnesota, as well as cities and districts in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Iowa, among others.

Chicago Public School officials also cancelled classes for Monday ahead of the expected bitterly cold temperatures.

Southern states were bracing for possible record cold temperatures, too, with highs from -13 to -17°C expected on Tuesday in Georgia and Alabama.

- AP

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