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'Polar vortex' may ease grip on region

Meteorologists say that what they call a "polar vortex," and the rest of us call bitterly cold weather, is beginning to ease up in the Upper Midwest.

Jumping a car battery
Charles Lightfeather of Tower prepares his battery cables as he waits for a neighbor to help jump his car Monday afternoon. He was hoping to drive to Ely to look at a house. The temperature at the time was minus 21. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Meteorologists say that what they call a "polar vortex," and the rest of us call bitterly cold weather, is beginning to ease up in the Upper Midwest.

That means the region may reach temperatures Alaskans have been enjoying.

"The good news is today, Monday, is the worst day," said Todd Heitkamp of the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, S.D. "The rest of the week will still be cold with the wind chill still being between minus 20 and 30 ... but by Friday we should be somewhere up around the freezing mark."

Nearly 20 states endured below-zero wind chill temperatures Monday, but the misery index was worst in the Upper Midwest.

Among the coldest cities was Northeastern Minnesota's Grand Marais, which at 9 a.m. was 31 below zero with a minus 61 wind chill. In west-central Minnesota's Alexandria, the wind chill still was 56 below at midday.

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In contrast, the temperature in Nome, Alaska, on Monday topped 30 degrees above zero.

The miserably cold had plenty of company in several states. Upper Midwest cities reporting just slightly warmer wind chills than Alexandria and Grand Marais ranged from Owatonna in southern Minnesota to Green Bay in eastern Wisconsin to Devils Lake in eastern North Dakota.

On the good news side Monday, temperatures did not set record lows (which are about 60 below in North Dakota and Minnesota) and Mall of America's Nickelodeon Universe gave people free rides at the indoor amusement park.

But bad news was much more common.

Some roads were a problem. "Not a good day to slide into the ditch," Kevin Gutknecht of the Minnesota Department of Transportation said in urging people to be careful of black ice that often forms when it is so cold.

Throughout the Upper Midwest, state transportation authorities reported a variety of road conditions, ranging from clear to snow- and ice-covered. Roads were especially bad in parts of North Dakota and Minnesota.

Two firefighters in Devils Lake, N.D., were recovering from frostbite and two others were hurt in falls while fighting a Sunday elevator fire.

The Arctic air could mean oil output in North Dakota, the second-largest oil producing state, will suffer. Output usually ebbs in winter as producers scale back on drilling and well-completion services such as fracking, which pumps a slurry of water, sand and chemicals into wells. But analysts are bracing for the possibility that bitterly cold temperatures will force a deeper than usual reduction in oil output.

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Thousands of residents scattered throughout the region lost power for a time Monday.

"This cold is wreaking havoc on vehicles," said Matt Strommer of A&A Towing in Alexandria.

Strommer put on three layers of clothing to prepare for Monday's cold, and his co-worker, Tony Wendlandt, said he put on six layers.

"When it's this cold, it's so bad that I don't even know what to say about it," Strommer added.

Some area cities came close to setting a record cold high temperature Monday.

"That's a record you don't want to break," said Bill Abeling of the National Weather Service in Bismarck.

It can be more than a chilling experience, it can be a health hazard.

"At these temperatures, exposed skin can freeze within minutes," said Philip Schumacher, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Sioux Falls. "Your life can be in danger in less than an hour should you be outside without adequate clothing."

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The cold snap attracted international attention.

Chris Muller of Minnesota's Beltrami County Emergency Management office was interviewed by the Australian National News in Sydney about what temperatures felt like in Bemidji on Monday.

"We are bundled up, but we are managing," Muller told the Aussies, who were basking in 70 degrees. "We just take it easy and check on our neighbors, especially the elderly."

Related Topics: TRANSPORTATIONWEATHER
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