The deep freeze expected Sunday in the U.S. Midwest, northeastern New England and even the South will be one to remember, with potential record-low temperatures heightening fears of frostbite and hypothermia.
It hasn't been this cold for decades — 20 years in Washington, D.C., 18 years in Milwaukee, 15 in Missouri — even in the Midwest, where bundling up is second nature. WeatherBELL meteorologist Ryan Maue said, "If you're under 40 (years old), you've not seen this stuff before."
Preceded by snow in much of the Midwest, the frigid air will begin Sunday and extend into early next week, funneled as far south as the Gulf Coast. Blame it on a "polar vortex," as one meteorologist calls it, a counterclockwise-rotating pool of cold, dense air.
"It's just a large area of very cold air that comes down, forms over the North Pole or polar regions ... usually stays in Canada, but this time it's going to come all the way into the eastern United States," said National Weather Service meteorologist Phillip Schumacher in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The forecasts are startling: 25 below zero in Fargo, North Dakota, minus 31 in International Falls, Minnesota and 15 below in Indianapolis and Chicago. At those temperatures, exposed skin can get frostbitten in minutes and hypothermia can quickly set in as wind chills may reach 50, 60 or even 70 below zero.
Even wind chills of 25 below zero can do serious damage, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Truett in St. Louis.
"Those are dangerous levels of wind chill," he said of the expected wind chill in Missouri at daybreak Monday. "A person not properly dressed could die easily in those conditions."
Already, parts of the northeastern New England states dropped into the negatives early Saturday, with East Brighton, Vermont, seeing 30 below zero just after midnight and Allagash, Maine, hitting minus 36. The cold will sweep through other parts of New England where residents are digging out from a snowstorm.
Snow will reduce the sun's heating effect, so nighttime lows will plummet because of the strong northwest winds, Maue said. Fresh powder is expected in parts of the central Midwest and South starting Saturday night — up to a foot in eastern Missouri and southern Michigan, 6 to 8 inches in central Illinois, 8 or more inches in western Kentucky and up to 6 inches in parts of middle Tennessee.
The South also will dip into temperatures rarely seen. By Monday morning, western and central Kentucky could be below zero — "definitely record-breaking," said weather service meteorologist Christine Wielgos in Paducah, Kentucky. And in Atlanta, Tuesday's high is expected to hover in the mid-20s.
The arctic chill will affect everything from sports to schools to flights. Mike Duell, with the flight-tracking website FlightAware.com, says to expect airport delays and flight cancellations because of the cold temperatures.
"For some of them, they run into limitations on the aircraft. They're only certified to take off at temperatures so low so if they get into a particular cold front it can prevent them from being able to legally take off," he said. "In a lot of cases, it's just ice."
In Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton canceled school statewide for Monday — the first time in 17 years low temperatures caused closings. Schools as far south as Washington, D.C., are also considering closures.
Sunday's National Football League playoff game in Green Bay could be among the coldest ever played — a frigid minus 2 degrees when the Packers and San Francisco 49ers kickoff at Lambeau Field. Medical experts suggest fans wear at least three layers and drink warm fluids — not alcohol.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press