Frigid Air Threatens Coldest U.S. Weather in Two Decades

The coldest air in almost 20 years is sweeping over the central U.S. toward the East Coast, threatening to topple temperature records, ignite energy demand and damage Great Plains winter wheat.

Wind chills plunged past 60 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (minus 51 Celsius) in parts of the upper Midwest. Chicago’s high today won’t reach zero and may just hit that tomorrow, according to the National Weather Service. New York City, which had a pre-dawn reading of 54, will drop to 6 by tomorrow, while the temperature at Dallas Love Field was 16 at 7 a.m. local time.

Winter storms and frigid air add volatility to commodities trading and spot power markets. Natural gas futures in New York have surged more than 20 percent since Nov. 1 as the coldest start to the U.S. heating season in 13 years boosted fuel demand. Last week, as snow and cold gripped the nation, spot power for New York City jumped more than 11-fold in one hour, while wheat climbed the most since mid-October. This week, cities from Minneapolis to Pittsburgh may have record-low highs.

“It’s really dangerous stuff,” said Richard Castro, a weather service meteorologist in Romeoville, Illinois. The lowest temperature in the contiguous U.S. as of 7 a.m. Eastern time was 36 below zero at Crane Lake, Minnesota, while Comertown, Montana, reported a wind chill of 63 below, the U.S. Weather Prediction Center said.

Heavy Snow

The cold was accompanied in some areas by a storm that left more than a foot (30 centimeters) of snow from Missouri to Michigan. Parts of Interstates 65 and 84/94 in Indiana were closed overnight, according to the state police there. Amtrak curtailed service to and from Chicago, including canceling the Lake Shore Limited trains that serve Boston and New York, as well as the Empire Builder to the West Coast.

Hard-freeze warnings and watches, which are alerts for farmers, stretch from Texas to central Florida. Mike Musher, a meteorologist with the prediction center in College Park, Maryland, said 90 percent of the contiguous U.S. would be at or below the freezing mark today.

Intense Cold

Tomorrow may be the coldest day of the 21st century for the contiguous U.S., beating Jan. 16, 2009, said Matt Rogers, president of Commodity Weather Group in Bethesda, Maryland.

Freezing temperatures spur energy demand as people turn up thermostats to heat homes and businesses. Power generation accounts for 32 percent of U.S. natural-gas use, according to the Energy Information Administration. About 49 percent of all homes use the fuel for heating.

“Everybody’s energy bills will be going up,” Musher said. “I am sure there are going to be multiple records broken across a large part of the country.”

Spot wholesale electricity in Texas topped $5,000 a megawatt-hour for the first time as frigid weather boosted demand and prompted the grid operator to ask users to conserve power.

Spot gas prices for tomorrow for New York City surged to $90 per million British thermal units on the Intercontinental Exchange and climbed at the Algonquin City Gates, which includes Boston, to a high of $50, said Kate Trischitta, director of trading at Consolidated Edison Inc.’s wholesale energy trading division in New York. That would be a record for New York based on ICE prices going back to 2001 and the most for Algonquin since Jan. 14, 2004, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

NYC Records

New York may break or tie daily cold records overnight, said Joey Picca, a weather service meteorologist in Upton, New York. The temperature in Central Park is expected to fall to 6 degrees by tomorrow, which would tie the record for the day set in 1896.

As the temperatures plunge, there is a chance for flash freezing, he said. A flash freeze is when any remaining rain or melted snow is frozen quickly. Along with the cold, snow, rain and ice will persist in many high-population areas.

As of 4 p.m. in New York, 3,683 flights had been canceled across the U.S., according to FlightAware, a Houston-based tracking service. Freezing temperatures in New York may have contributed to a Delta Connection flight sliding into a snowbank at John F. Kennedy International Airport yesterday, shutting flight operations for two hours.

Degree Values

Across the U.S., the natural gas-weighted heating degree days value for tomorrow is expected to be 47.65, above the 10-year normal of 29.9 and the 30-year mark of 31, said Bob Haas, manager of energy weather at MDA Weather Services in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

The last time such a high value was reached was in 1996, when it was 50.06, Haas said. Heating degree values, a measurement of possible energy demand, are calculated by subtracting the daily average temperature from a base of 65 degrees.

“As far as power and energy demand, we will see those really skyrocketing Sunday, Monday and Tuesday,” Haas said Jan. 3. “This will be some of the coldest air in decades.”

Rogers said there’s a chance the value for the day would exceed 50.

Chicago, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh may also set temperature records, Haas said. The lowest high in Chicago is minus 11, last reached in 1994, while Pittsburgh’s record is minus 3 in 1994 and Minneapolis’s lowest high was minus 20 in 1888, according to Haas.

Chicago Cold

The high in Chicago today was expected to be minus 10 with a wind chill in the minus 35- to minus 50-range, Castro said.

Atlanta is forecast to drop to 9 tonight and 15 tomorrow night, according to the weather service.

While temperatures crashed in much of the central and eastern U.S. at the end of last week, dropping to a high of 14 in Chicago and 18 in Manhattan, this week’s cold will have a greater impact because most people are back to work after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, said Michael Schlacter of Weather 2000 Inc. in New York.

Readings may be even colder than predicted because forecast models have trouble with extremes, he said. Areas in the East that didn’t lose their snowcover over the weekend may also have lower readings, Schlacter said.

In addition, wind chill is a cold factor that can’t be measured when looking at temperature alone, Rogers said. Wind chill alerts stretch from Montana to Maine and as far south as Texas and Florida.

Power Demand

PJM Interconnection LLC expects power consumption on the largest U.S. grid to jump this week to the highest level in almost four months. Demand on the 13-state grid, which serves more than 60 million people from Washington to Chicago, will peak at 140,551 megawatts tomorrow, the most since Sept. 11, according to a posting on PJM’s website today and to grid data compiled by Bloomberg.

Electricity use in New York City will peak tomorrow at 7,699 megawatts, the most since Oct. 7, New York Independent System Operator Inc. said. Spot natural gas for New York City surged last week to the highest level in almost a year.

Electric utilities from Texas to Maine reported about 100,000 homes and businesses without power as of about noon New York time today, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News from company websites. Nearly a third of those blacked out were in the Indianapolis area.

Teri Viswanath, director of commodities strategy at BNP Paribas SA in New York, said the cold wave has been priced into natural gas futures.

Futures Trading

“As traders and investors return on Monday, our expectation is that prices will likely stay supported,” she said in an e-mail interview Jan. 3. “As far as power and energy demand, we will see those really skyrocketing.”

Natural gas for February delivery rose 0.2 cent to settle at $4.306 per million British thermal units on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The frigid weather also poses a threat to winter wheat crops in areas that aren’t covered by a layer of snow to insulate the plants, said Paul Markert, a meteorologist with MDA Weather Services.

“There could be some widespread winter-kill damage in northern Kansas and Nebraska Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday,” Markert said.

Wheat for delivery in March settled unchanged at $6.0575 a bushel on the Chicago Board of Trade today after climbing as much as 1.2 percent.

(Updates with flight cancellations and closing futures prices starting in 14th paragraph.)
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