Frigid air clamped down on much of the U.S., giving Chicago a morning temperature lower than the South Pole and breaking records across the country amid disruptions to road, rail and air transport.
Chicago, which yesterday reached a new low for the date of minus 16 (minus 27 Celsius), hovered at 3 degrees at 4:51 p.m. local time, according to the National Weather Service. It was 9 degrees in New York, where temperatures earlier broke a record for Jan. 7 set in 1896, the agency said.
“Today is a brutal day, and there is no way around it,” said Tom Kines, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania. “One of my colleagues pointed out to me that the South Pole this morning is 6 below. That means places like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, all those places are colder than the South Pole.”
It may be the coldest day in 20 years, forecasters said. The cold is part of a pattern of extreme weather that occurs every decade or so and has been plaguing the U.S. with temperature swings from mild to freezing for more than a month. It extends across the upper Midwest into the South and eastward to the Atlantic, Kines said.
The Minnesota towns of Embarrass and Brimson had recorded the lowest temperature in the contiguous U.S. as of 1 p.m. with readings of minus 35, the Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland, reported.
“It’s amazing, the only part of the U.S. east of the Mississippi that’s above freezing is the southern two-thirds of Florida,” said Bruce Terry, a meteorologist with the center. “Today is the coldest day for a large chunk of the U.S.”
West of the Mississippi, the only places getting above freezing were the Southwest from Texas to California and then up the Pacific Coast to the Northwest, Terry said.
The worst cold apparently missed citrus regions of Florida, Dale Mohler, an AccuWeather meteorologist, said today. A surge in energy demand pushed power in Texas to more than $5,000 a megawatt-hour yesterday for the first time and caused disruptions to oil refineries and pipelines.
Chicago Public Schools, the third largest U.S. district, closed for a second day in a row because of cold weather, according to a system statement. Schools will probably open tomorrow for the city’s 400,000 students if temperatures rise.
The frigid weather put a stranglehold on transportation routes around the country, including the New York State Thruway in the western part of that state. Parts of Interstates 65 and 84/94 in Indiana were closed yesterday, according to the State Police there.
As of 6:47 p.m. New York time, 2,610 flights had been canceled in the U.S. today, said FlightAware, a Houston-based tracking service.
Amtrak stopped services on 22 trains in and out of Chicago, according to a statement from the government-owned passenger railroad. The rail line also reduced operations from New York to Boston and canceled trips on other routes.
A pool of warm water just south of the Gulf of Alaska has contributed to the creation of a ridge of high pressure over that part of the Pacific, said Matt Rogers, president of the Commodity Weather Group LLC in Bethesda, Maryland. That ridging set off a chain of events resulting in cold air being pumped into the U.S., he said.
“You push a lot of warmth to the north and you have to push a lot of cold further south somewhere else,” Rogers said.
The cold air rides south on a dip in the jet stream that has drawn extremely cold polar air deep into the heart of the country, said James Aman, senior meteorologist with Earth Networks in Germantown, Maryland.
“It is certainly out of the ordinary,” Aman said. “We get these more extreme weather patterns once every five or 10 years, so it isn’t a sign of the end of the world or anything like that.”
The entire process then resets itself and temperatures in the U.S. rise, which is going to happen through rest of this week into the weekend, Rogers said.
“It has been like this all winter,” Rogers said. “This is the pattern of the winter, it has been a high-deviation winter.”
Yesterday, as snow and blizzard conditions moved across parts of the Midwest, record lows for the date were set or tied across the northern tier of the country. The low of minus 13 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, beat the old mark of minus 12 in 1970, according to the weather service. In Burlington, Iowa, the mercury fell to minus 14, which was also reached in 1970.
Atlanta’s low today settled at 6, breaking the old daily record of 10 in 1970. Athens, Macon and Columbus, Georgia, also set records for the date, according to the weather service.
Wind chills dropped past 60 degrees below zero yesterday. Conditions were warmer today, with chills past 40 below, according to a Plymouth State Weather Center map.
The cold has been offset by a ridge in the western Atlantic that has pumped warmer air up the Eastern seaboard a number of times this season and has kept temperatures in Florida higher than normal until this week, Terry said.
As the cold recedes, the southern U.S. will benefit from that warm ocean air, which may push its way up into the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states by next week.
In one measure of the cold, the natural gas-weighted heating degree days value was expected to be 47.5 today, according to Commodity Weather Group, beating the century’s previous high of 45.1 set on Jan. 16, 2009. Natural gas-weighted heating degrees subtract the daily average temperatures in cities nationwide from 65, then weight the totals based on population and use of the fuel for heating.
Grid operators from the mid-Atlantic states through the central U.S. warned of tight operating conditions as the bitter cold boosted demand.
PJM Interconnection LLC, the largest U.S. electric grid, said demand across its 13 states surged to a winter record of 138,600 megawatts early today and would reach 140,000 megawatts. Voltage on the grid was reduced by 5 percent today to cut use, while more than 61 million consumers from Washington to Chicago were asked to conserve.
Electric Reliability Council of Texas Inc., grid operator for most of the state, asked users to conserve power. Spot wholesale power on that grid reached $5,000 a megawatt-hour yesterday.
Spot gas prices for today surged to a record for New York City of $90 per million British thermal units and reached 10-year highs on other parts of New England and the mid-Atlantic region in IntercontinentalExchange trading yesterday.
“I’ve never seen anything like it; this is some pretty extreme cold,” said Tom Hahn, vice president of U.S. power derivatives at ICAP Energy LLC, a broker in Durham, North Carolina. “We are definitely seeing that reflected in the market, but it’s going to be short-lived. The expectation is that by Wednesday and Thursday it’s going to be cold but it’s going to be back closer to seasonal temperatures.”
Exxon Mobil Corp. and Valero Energy Corp. had failures at refineries in Illinois and Tennessee because of cold temperatures, according to separate filings with the U.S. National Response Center. PBF Energy Inc.’s Paulsboro, New Jersey, refinery lost power and Marathon Petroleum Corp. shut several units at its Detroit plant because of extreme cold.
The cold air blowing across the Great Lakes may bring 24 inches of snow to parts of western New York by tonight, according to the weather service.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency in 14 counties, telling reporters on a conference call that a “truly extraordinary” weather event was expected.
Temperatures in New York are expected to bounce back to 51 by this weekend, according to the weather service. On Jan. 13, the high may reach 55, said MDA Weather Services in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Chicago’s high may reach 39 by Jan. 10 and Washington 61 by Jan. 13, according to MDA.