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Relief on the way for shivering Americans

A cross country skier makes his way across Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, January 7, 2014. (REUTERS/Eric Miller)

CHICAGO: After days of an arctic chill so cold that a Chicago zoo brought their polar bear inside, the United States woke up to a break in the weather Wednesday.

The National Weather Service said “a much anticipated warm-up” was expected over the eastern two-thirds of the United States, which had shivered through a week of record-breaking cold and two massive snowstorms.

However, it will still be long underwear and scarf weather for many: The weather service predicts temperatures will be 25-30 degrees Celsius below average in parts of the upper Midwest.

And every U.S. state except Florida and Hawaii were forecast to dip below freezing either during the day or overnight Wednesday.

Air travel, which had been an utter nightmare with more than 18,000 flights canceled since Thursday, was starting to slowly return to normal.

Some 664 U.S. flights had been canceled Wednesday morning and more than 1,000 were delayed, according to FlightAware.com, a site that monitors air travel.

The slight warming comes after some truly stunning temperatures – in some cases lower than the surface of Mars.

Chicago was colder than the South Pole when officials at the Lincoln Park zoo decided to keep Anana the polar bear inside Monday. Unlike her wild cousins, she hadn’t built up the protective fat stores to insulate herself against the chill.

And more than 500 passengers spent the night aboard trains stranded by snow drifts in Illinois.

The most dangerous cold – cold that can cause frostbite in minutes and death in a matter of hours – hit the Midwest, as a weather phenomenon called the “polar vortex” brought frigid air from the Arctic.

Schools, businesses and government offices were closed. Water mains and household pipes froze. Airplanes were grounded, trains were halted and roads and sidewalks became ice rinks. The National Guard was called in to help rescue hundreds of stranded motorists.

There were reports of at least 20 deaths caused by the extreme weather. Many were from traffic accidents, but four women were found dead in the snow, including an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s in New York and a young woman found outside her home in Minnesota.

Hypothermia was blamed for the death of a man in Wisconsin and contributed to a death in Ohio.

And at least four men suffered heart attacks while shoveling snow in Chicago.

The town of Embarrass, Minnesota, recorded the lowest temperature in the U.S. Tuesday at a frigid minus 37 Celsius.

It had warmed up to minus 25 Celsius Wednesday morning.

Then there was the wind chill: a calculation that represents how much colder it feels when the blinding gusts hit you in the face.

That dipped as low as minus 52 Celsius in Montana and was in the minus 40 to minus 50 Celsius range in parts of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin Monday and Tuesday.

That’s cold enough to toss a cup of boiling water into the air and watch it turn into snow before it hits the ground.

The Mars Rover has been sending back daily temperature readings from its tour of the Red Planet ranging from minus 25 to minus 31 degrees Celsius.

“To be fair, though, Mars is still way colder,” the Smithsonian Institute wrote in a blog post. “The Curiosity rover is driving around in a crater at, roughly, the equivalent latitude of Venezuela.”

But then again, Mars is 126 million km further away from the sun.

Even hardy Canadians were complaining of the cold amid widespread power outages.

Temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius with a wind chill plunged the western Prairies region into a deep freeze.

The streets of Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa were coated with black ice after unusually warm temperatures brought rain Monday before the mercury plunged overnight.

Toronto’s Pearson Airport temporarily halted ground operations early Tuesday because of “equipment freezing” and out of concern for the safety of airport personnel, it said on its Twitter account. A quarter of its flights were canceled Wednesday morning.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 09, 2014, on page 11.

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