Polar vortex: US braces for coldest weather in 20 years

Temperatures in central and northern US as low as -50C as 'life-threatening' Arctic front cuts through

LAST UPDATED AT 10:02 ON Mon 6 Jan 2014

PARTS of the United States are bracing for the coldest temperatures in 20 years as a pool of cold, dense air known as a “polar vortex” sweeps through northern and central parts of the country.

Canada and north-eastern US have already been hit by winter storms, which have been blamed for the deaths of 16 people. But the polar vortex – or the “Polar Pig” as it has been nicknamed – is set to bring the coldest temperatures in 20 years to the Mid West.

How cold? Forecasters say temperatures in states such as Ohio, South Dakota and Illinois could feel as low as -51C (-60F) once the effect of wind chill in factored in. Authorities have warned residents to remain indoors, both for their own safety and to keep roads clear for snow removal.

To illustrate just how extreme America’s big chill is likely to get, an ABC News reporter in Chicago stood on a city street and threw a cup of boiling water into the air. The liquid froze before it hit the ground.

Not surprisingly, the weather is causing havoc for travellers. More than 3,700 flights were cancelled over the weekend and an aircraft slid into snow after landing at New York’s JFK airport. No-one was hurt in the incident.

Schools in Chicago are closed today and officials in the affected regions are telling people stay indoors.

Reuters reports that when the wind chill reaches -50C, frostbite can “set in on uncovered skin in a matter of minutes”.

A spokesman for the National Weather Service said the widespread chill was a result of a relatively infrequent alignment of weather conditions, allowing the Arctic polar vortex to be displaced unusually far south. The only good news is that the ice storm won’t be around for too long.

"It's not going to be long-lived," the forecaster told Reuters. "By the end of the week the temperatures will definitely start to moderate across the whole of the country." · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.