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January 4, 2014

Frigid air to blast U.S.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The weather warnings are dire: Life threatening wind chills. Historic cold outbreak.

Winter is normally cold, but starting Sunday tundra-like temperatures are poised to deliver a rare and potentially dangerous sledgehammer blow to much of the Midwest, driving temperatures so far below zero that records will shatter.

One reason? A “polar vortex,” as one meteorologist calls it, which will send cold air from the North Pole to the U.S., funneling it as far south as the Gulf Coast.

The temperature predictions are startling: 25 below zero in Fargo, N.D., minus 31 in International Falls, Minn., and 15 below in Indianapolis and Chicago. At those temperatures, exposed skin can get frostbitten in minutes and hypothermia can quickly set in because wind chills could hit 50, 60 or even 70 below zero.

Temperature records will likely be broken during the short yet forceful deep freeze that will begin in many places Sunday and extend into early next week, thanks to a perfect combination of the jet stream, cold surface temperatures and the polar vortex — a counterclockwise-rotating pool of cold, dense air, said Ryan Maue, of Tallahassee, Fla., a meteorologist for Weather Bell.

“All the ingredients are there for a near-record or historic cold outbreak,” he said. “If you’re under 40 (years old), you’ve not seen this stuff before.”

Snow already on the ground and fresh powder expected in some places ahead of the cold air will reduce the sun’s heating effect, so nighttime lows will plummet thanks to strong northwest winds that will deliver the Arctic blast, Maue said. And there’s no warming effect from the Gulf to counteract the cold air, he said.

The cold blast will sweep through parts of New England, where residents will have just dug out from a snowstorm and the frigid temperatures that followed. Parts of the central Midwest could also see up to a foot of snow just as the cold sweeps in pulling temperatures to 10 below zero in the St. Louis area.

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