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Incoming Arctic Blast Set to Disrupt Holiday Travel Nationwide

A major cold front in the wake of winter storms could bring dangerously cold temperatures to much of the U.S.

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Photo of highway and highway sign
Below freezing temperatures across much of the U.S. Wednesday night through Saturday could bring hazardous conditions to roads at one of the busiest travel times of the year.
Photo: Erik S. Lesser (Getty Images)

An extreme chill is set to sweep across most of the continental U.S. in the coming days, as a blast of Arctic air dips as far south as Texas. National Weather Service forecasters are predicting unusually cold temperatures from the Pacific Northwest to the Southeast between Wednesday and Saturday, just days after snowstorms left more than 160,000 people in the Northeast without electricity.

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Arctic Blast to Send U.S. into Dangerous Deep Freeze, Imperiling Holiday Travel

In Gulf states like Louisiana and Mississippi, where people are unaccustomed to freezing weather, temperatures could plummet to near 1o degrees Fahrenheit (-12 Celsius) or lower by Thursday night, according to NOAA projections. In Nashville, Tennessee, Friday night’s forecast low is 5 F (-15 C). In Missouri, temperatures are likely to fall to below 0 F (-18 C)

Strong winds will make the air effectively much colder, with “dangerously cold windchills” exposing people to subzero temps, according to multiple NWS Special Weather Statements spanning from New Mexico to North Dakota to Indiana. “Wind chills of this magnitude can cause frostbite in less than 5 minutes. Hypothermia can occur if precautions are not taken,” said the Special Weather Statement for the Indianapolis region.

The NWS also warned that the cold temps and accompanying winter weather could impact infrastructure and travel. Forecasters wrote that people in some affected areas should ensure their homes and vehicles are winterized, double-check carbon monoxide detectors, insulate plumbing, and watch out for icy roads.

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The days leading up to Christmas are some of the most notoriously busy times to travel, yet, traffic delays and respiratory viruses aside, more than 100 million people in the U.S. took to the roads in 2021, according to AAA. Millions more arrived at distant family and vacation destinations via air. And AAA forecasts that this week and next are likely to exceed the high numbers from last year.

Extreme cold can lead to a pile-up of travel issues. It can cause power outages, icy driving conditions, cracked asphalt, and car troubles. Some flights, too, are likely to be impacted by the unusually chilly conditions, even without snow or sleet. Though planes are well suited to flying in the cold (and low temperatures alone are much less disruptive than extreme heat to flight), tens of thousands of flights are canceled each year because of intense cold and ice on planes and tarmacs, according to a report from Business Insider.

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Though climate change is typically associated with heatwaves, our reliance on fossil fuels is likely contributing to a breakdown of Arctic air currents. As the so-called polar vortex is disturbed, instances of icy cold dipping down into the continental U.S., like February 2021's record snap, are becoming more common. And researchers predict that continued climate change will lead to even more frequent bursts of extreme winter freeze.