For millions of Americans across a large swath of the country, the holiday week is beginning with unrelenting below-freezing temperatures made even more miserable by heavy snow expected Tuesday and Wednesday in several central and northwestern states.
More than 25 million people are under wind chill alerts across much of the central and northwestern US, including in places slammed with blizzard conditions by a separate storm system last week.
On Tuesday, the sprawling weather system is delivering dangerously cold temperatures and snow to Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and most of Minnesota, where high temperatures will remain below zero, according to forecasters at the National Weather Service.
The air feels so cold, frostbite on exposed skin can occur in under 10 minutes in most of the impacted areas, and some isolated locations in under five minutes, forecasters warn.
“In addition to the brutally cold temperatures, dangerous wind chill values of 35 to 55 degrees below zero are possible into the end of the week across these areas,” the Weather Prediction Center said Monday.
Wind chill advisories are in place for Sioux, South Dakota, and Fargo, North Dakota, Tuesday, when the dangers of frostbite are settling in. Wind chill, which indicates what the wind feels like, will be as low as 40 degrees below zero.
“Starting tonight, the worst of the arctic air mass will reach our area, bringing dangerous temperatures and wind chills. Slippery roads will continue with additional accumulating snow expected Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday morning,” the weather service office in Glasgow, Montana, said Monday evening.
Snowfall has already begun in Seattle, which is under a winter storm warning Tuesday. The storm will move east into portions of Idaho Tuesday morning and then spread out across northern and central Montana later in the afternoon.
As the storm moves east this week, it stands to make holiday travel difficult, if not dangerous, in many places, with forecasters urging people to be prepared to make changes.
In Minnesota, the weather service in the Twin Cities implored residents to be cautious of the “potentially dangerous week of weather,” with the worst of the effects in the Midwest beginning Wednesday.
“The bottom line is travel will be very dangerous and could be LIFE-THREATENING later this week so be prepared to alter travel plans now!” the local weather service office said.
Many local governments in the affected areas have opened warming centers in an attempt to provide relief to those who need it.
Overall, most of the US is expected to see abnormally cold temperatures this week. In fact, more than 80% of the country, excluding Hawaii and Alaska, are forecast to see below-freezing temperatures.
In Montana, Helena and Missoula are under winter storm warnings beginning Tuesday, and Billings is under a wind chill advisory through noon Friday.
The storm is also expected to intensify as it approaches the Midwest, where the greatest impacts are forecast. Snow will begin in the region Wednesday and last through much of the Christmas weekend.
In parts of central Minnesota, several inches of fluffy snow are expected Wednesday, followed by high winds, creating the potential for blizzard conditions. A blizzard is defined as having winds of at least 35 mph along with falling or blowing snow which reduces visibility to a quarter-mile or less, for at least three hours.
“By Thursday, wind gusts of 40-50 mph appear likely. With the fluffy snow in place, blizzard conditions are highly likely area wide, even in areas that typically aren’t favored for whiteout conditions,” the weather service said.
Chicago is forecast to be one of the hardest hit cities, where a winter storm watch is in effect starting Thursday night through Friday evening. With blizzard conditions likely, holiday travel could grind to a halt for many seeking to celebrate with family and loved ones.
“Rapidly deteriorating conditions by late Thursday afternoon, with dangerous blizzard conditions appearing increasingly likely Thursday night into Friday,” said the weather service office in Chicago, home to one of the nation’s busiest airports and long-distance train depots.
Meanwhile, even southern cities unaccustomed to wintry conditions will get a brittle taste of it this holiday season, with Austin, Houston, Atlanta, and even Orlando at risk of seeing temperatures below freezing beginning midweek.
In Texas, the National Weather Service made it a point to reassure residents this week’s unusually cold temperatures are not expected to affect the state as severely as last year’s brutal winter storms, when millions of people lost power during a weeklong extreme weather event in February 2021.
However, water pipes will be at risk of bursting, the weather service said. A wind chill watch for Amarillo, Texas, is in effect from Wednesday night through Friday afternoon.
“Outdoor pipes will be at risk due to well below freezing temps and windy conditions late this week,” the weather service in Fort Worth said. “Make sure to cover pipes and let faucets drip!”