Jesse Ferrell

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Extreme Cold to Challenge All-Time Record Lows?

December 31, 2013; 10:20 AM ET

UPDATE 1/5: We are now calling this outbreak the coldest weather in 20 years (for the Midwest).

UPDATE 1/4: The extreme temperatures are now in most weather forecasts. ABC says that it will be a "near-record, hiostoric or 40-year" cold outbreak. Wind chills may reach -70 degrees F, something the RealFeel temperature forecast agrees on. Our article also says that the governor of Minnesota has closed all schools on Monday in anticipation of the cold temperatures.

UPDATE 1/1: Daily cold records are already being broken from this airmass in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

The European computer forecast model printed out (something we meteorologists say from back in the day when it literally printed a DIFAX chart on wide-format computer paper) some incredible temperatures yesterday. For the middle of next week, it estimated lows of -20 to -30 F over much of the Ohio Valley and western Pennsylvania, with daytime highs in the negative teens and said even New York City would plummet to -18! (This would be a new record; NYC has only been below -10 twice, 1917 and 1934, when it plunged to -15.)

This morning, it has moderated somewhat but still suggests lows in the negative teens, with -20s in the Appalachian Mountains, including North Carolina! This got me thinking (as it did in 2009)... how close to records would this be and what kind of impact would it have on the area?

The 1994 cold wave looks remarkably like yesterday's Euro prediction; today's forecast is farther south but less severe. The maps suggest that Pittsburgh, which plummeted to -22 in 1994, would beat that in the -20s as of yesterday's forecast but fail to get below -13 in today's forecast. Altoona, Pa., would have double digits below zero either way - something that has happened less than 10 times in history; the most recent being 1994, when it plummeted to -25. With either forecast, Winchester, Va., which hit -18 in 1994, would likely see that again next week. Yesterday's forecast said that Asheville, N.C., might see -10, which it did 19 years ago, but today's forecast says +10.

The all-time low temperature records throughout the Ohio Valley would probably be safe, even with the worst forecast; they range between -36 and -39 F. Once you get into Pennsylvania, Maryland and New England, you're in the -40s at least. Then again, surprising local effects can happen, especially with snow cover; that 2009 outbreak I mentioned ended up pushing my thermometer to -15 even though the local station was barely below zero.

The 1994 outbreak had some interesting effects that we should be aware of for our next "big one." Rolling blackouts affected the mid-Atlantic, because of overuse of home heating, frozen coal piles and iced-over rivers. Businesses and schools were closed. Pipes that don't usually freeze froze at those temperatures, and many cars wouldn't start either. Road salt also doesn't work below zero.

The technologies used for power and heat 20 years ago were a lot different than today, and cell phone networks didn't exist. Who knows if the cell phone towers in the mid-Atlantic are built to operate at -30 degrees? Can you imagine the chaos if a power and cell phone outage ensued? A worst-case scenario, for sure, but this is all something to keep in mind for the next big cold wave.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of AccuWeather, Inc. or


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Jesse Ferrell
Jesse Ferrell's WeatherMatrix blog covers extreme weather worldwide with a concentration on weather photos and Social Media.