US historical winter storm to affect 37 states, will bring deadly frostbite

Travellers at O'Hare Airport in Chicago
Travellers at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport

Plunging temperatures wreaking havoc across the US and Canada can lead to frostbite on bare skin in only five to 10 minutes, experts are warning.

A powerful Arctic winter storm has placed more than 135 million people under weekend weather alerts ahead of the busiest travel days of the year. The alerts stretch from coast to coast and reach as far south as the US-Mexico border and Florida, the Sunshine State.

Major airports have cancelled thousands of flights as the storm intensifies. The cold snap could bring the iciest Christmas in decades, say forecasters. The National Weather Service (NWS) said temperatures of -50F (-45C) and -70F were possible by the end of this week in some parts of the country. They warned that even in major metro areas, like the city of Des Moines, Iowa, frostbite will be a major danger.

Frostbite is caused when blood flow is reduced, often to extremities like the nose and cheeks or fingers and toes. The lack of warm blood can lead to tissue freezing and rupturing, and in some cases, amputation.

Meteorologists say the winter storm could become a “bomb cyclone” by Friday. Bomb cyclone is a term given to an explosive storm that intensifies rapidly, with its central air pressure dropping by at least 24 millibars in 24 hours.

“This is not like a snow day, when you were a kid, this is serious stuff,” President Joe Biden said in a White House briefing on Thursday.

The Arctic air mass is projected to bring strong wind gusts and temperature of 15F (-9.4C) to El Paso, Texas, where newly arrived undocumented migrants are sleeping rough on city streets. Florida is projected to see its coldest Christmas in 30 years.

The NWS has called it a “once-in-a-generation” winter weather event, saying on Thursday that “life-threatening wind chills” will strike the east coast on Friday. Snow and powerful winds are expected to cause damage and power outages in the Midwest and Canada. The NWS warned more than 100 daily cold temperature records could be tied or broken over the next few days.

More than 5,300 flights in the US have already been cancelled on Thursday and Friday, according to the flight-tracking site FlightAware. In anticipation of travel disruptions, major airlines including United, Delta and American have offered to waive fees for travellers who wish to reschedule their flights.

Roads along the Colorado-Wyoming border were closed on Wednesday due to nearly zero visibility. The governors of Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virginia, New York, Georgia and Oklahoma have declared states of emergency.

Wisconsin has declared an “energy emergency” because of the weather. Other states, like Maryland, have activated emergency response operations ahead of the storm, while others have opened warming shelters.

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