Just ahead of the Christmas weekend, much of the lower 48 is covered in a chaotic patchwork of severe weather warnings, watches, and advisories from the National Weather Service. From Thursday through Saturday, bitter cold and winter storms are forecast to ravage the U.S. across an area spanning at least parts of 45 states.
The Great Plains, Gulf States, Midwest, and Appalachians are projected to be some of the hardest-hit regions. Wind chill warnings cover much of the middle of the country, with temperatures likely to drop far below zero from Montana and the Dakotas through to Iowa and Texas. In Amarillo and Lubbock in Texas, the NWS projects that gusty weather will make the air feel as cold as -21 degrees Fahrenheit (-29 Celsius), with windchills lower than -50 F (-45 C) in parts of Montana.
“Wind chills of this magnitude can cause frostbite in less than 5 minutes if precautions are not taken, with hypothermia and death also possible from prolonged exposure to the cold,” wrote the NWS in a Thursday alert.
On top of the windchill, the weather service is predicting heavy snow and squalls in parts of the Mississippi Valley to the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. “Developing snow squalls could lead to extremely hazardous travel conditions at times, as they will be accompanied by gusts to 40 mph, potentially creating sudden whiteout conditions,” said the alert. All told, the Great Lakes region could receive more than foot of snow—which isn’t much for the region. But coupled with the wind, blizzard conditions are likely, said NWS.
“This will lead to dangerous, to at times impossible, land and air travel leading up to the holiday weekend,” wrote NWS. “The combination of heavy snow and strong wind gusts could lead to significant infrastructure impacts, including scattered tree damage and power outages. Residents across the aforementioned regions are advised to make final preparations as soon as possible and check on family and friends during the storm in case of an emergency.”
The cold alone could cause infrastructure problems in some areas. During a similar freeze in February 2021, mass power outages swept across Texas as the state’s grid failed to hold up to the chill. Millions lost electricity, and hundreds of people died. ERCOT, the Texas utility, and Gov. Greg Abbott have sought to assure the public that improvements made to the system since then mean the power will stay on, but this forthcoming storm will be the first major test of the updated grid.
Other potentially dangerous precipitation forecast for the Christmas weekend includes freezing rain in Washington state and Oregon, along with heavy rain in parts of the East on Thursday, right before the coldest weather sweeps through—creating a high risk of a “rapid flash freeze” on asphalt and pavement.
The days leading up to Christmas and many peoples’ winter holiday breaks are some of the busiest travel times of the year. Nearly 102 million people are planning to travel 50 miles or more between Friday and January 2 via road, according to AAA’s annual analysis. Another approximate 7.2 million are expected to fly. But local weather offices are urging people to reconsider leaving home.
Ice, snow, wind, extreme cold, and heavy rains can all individually cause problems for both car travel and airplanes. Combined, such conditions are likely to be chaos-inducing.
Though cold weather in winter is nothing new, the root cause of this extreme storm system is a blast of air from the Arctic dipping down farther than it would normally extend. Such events, known as “polar vortexes,” are the result of low pressure and a breakdown of the standard northern latitude air currents. Some research suggests that increasingly intense polar vortexes are a side effect of climate change, which may be weakening the barrier between Arctic regions and the rest of the world via rapid polar warming.