DETROIT, Dec 22 – A dangerously frigid Arctic air mass gripped a vast swath of the United States on Thursday as a looming winter storm of historic proportions threatened to upend travel plans for millions of Americans.
Ahead of the holiday weekend, the approaching storm was expected to bring blizzards to the Great Lakes region, heavy rain followed by flash freezes on the East Coast, wind gusts of 60 mph (100 km/h) and bitter cold in the far south. like the Mexican border.
As the storm formed over the Great Lakes on Thursday, the weather phenomenon known as a bomb cyclone likely developed from a “rapidly deepening low pressure” system, the National Weather Service (NWS) said.
The cyclone could bring half an inch (1.25 cm) of snow per hour and howling winds from the upper Midwest to the inland Northeast, causing near-zero visibility, the weather service said.
Combined with the arctic chill, wind chills as low as 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (minus 40 Celsius) were forecast for the High Plains, northern Rockies and Great Basin, the NWS said. Exposure to these conditions without adequate protection can cause frostbite within minutes.
Power outages were likely due to high winds, heavy snow and ice combined with higher energy demands overall, and the storm was expected to make travel virtually impossible at times.
The extreme winter posed a particular danger to livestock in the intensively farmed area. Tyson Foods Inc ( TSN.N ), the nation’s top meat producer by revenue, said it has scaled back operations to protect employees and animals.
“It’s dangerous and threatening,” President Joe Biden said at the White House, urging Americans with travel plans not to delay and leave on Thursday. “This isn’t like a snow day when you were a kid, this is serious stuff.
By afternoon, more than half of the lower 48 states, from Washington state to Florida, were under freeze warnings and other winter weather advisories, affecting more than 200 million people, or about 60% of the U.S. population, the weather service said.
Stretching border-to-border and coast-to-coast, the NWS map of impending weather hazards Thursday “depicts one of the largest ranges of winter weather warnings and advisories ever,” the agency said.
The storm front could bring more than a foot (30 cm) of snow to some areas as it moves east from the Plains and Great Lakes, meteorologist Ashton Cook said. Snow storms were expected from Illinois to Indiana and could cause fading.
The American Automobile Association estimates that 112.7 million people plan to travel 50 miles (80 km) or more from home between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2, up 3.6 million travelers from last year and close to the numbers before pandemic.
More than 4,500 U.S. flights scheduled for Thursday and Friday were canceled, with Chicago’s two major airports accounting for more than 1,200 cancellations, according to flight tracking service FlightAware.
“It’s going to ruin Christmas,” Nadia Dickens, 42, a management company employee in Gallatin, Tenn., said Thursday after her flight from Nashville was scrapped.
She was headed to Corpus Christi, Texas, for a Christmas family gathering where she was looking forward to making tamales with her 94-year-old grandmother. Dickens booked another flight to Austin, Texas, after her relative offered to make the four-hour trip to get her to a family reunion, but she remained pessimistic.
“An inch of snow will fall overnight and the weather is terrible everywhere,” she said.
A cold air mass that first enveloped northern states pushed south across central Oklahoma and northwest Texas, where the mercury plunged into the single digits on Thursday.
Hundreds of Texans died in February 2021 after the state’s power grid failed amid winter storms, leaving millions without power. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which has since been working to protect its grid, “expects sufficient generation at this time to meet projected demand,” spokeswoman Christy Penders said.
Temperatures across the southern Plains and Southeast could remain below freezing, 30 or more degrees below normal, for several days, the NWS predicted.
Greg Carbin, chief of forecast operations at the NWS Weather Prediction Center in Maryland, said freezing or subfreezing temperatures would cross Central Florida with temperatures about 25 degrees below normal.
Motorists in the Ohio and Tennessee valleys were warned that wet roads could freeze immediately when temperatures drop.
The NWS also warned of freezing rain for parts of northwest Oregon and Washington, where a separate storm was forming Thursday.
Georgia joined North Carolina and Kentucky in declaring a state of emergency on Wednesday. Temperatures in northern Georgia were forecast to hit 10°F (minus 12°C) with freezing temperatures.
“We’re expecting weather that we haven’t seen in a decade or more,” Georgia Governor Brian Kemp said at a press conference for the media.
Brandon Mattis, 24, said his flight from New York to Atlanta was canceled on Thursday because of the impending storm, leaving him “distraught” at LaGuardia Airport in Queens.
Mattis said he looked for alternate routes and even considered a 21-hour bus trip to Atlanta.
“Whatever we can do just to get there, we will,” he said.