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New England braces for ‘epic, generational arctic outbreak’

Wind chills in northern Maine could approach minus-60, the lowest in decades. The worst of the cold is expected Friday night.

Wind chill forecast for 4 a.m. Saturday from the National Weather Service. (NWS)
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Wind chill warnings are in effect for most of New England and New York ahead of what the National Weather Service is describing as an “epic, generational arctic outbreak.”

“Life-threatening” cold, according to the Weather Service, will pour into the Northeast Thursday night into Friday — with the most extreme conditions expected Friday night into Saturday morning.

Wind chills will plunge to minus-30 to minus-45 by early Saturday throughout much of New England, while northern and western Maine could see wind chills down to minus-60 and even as low as minus-80 to minus-90 at high elevations.

“The dangerously cold wind chills could cause frostbite on exposed skin in as little as 5 minutes,” cautioned the Weather Service office in Caribou, serving northern and western Maine.

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While the most severe cold is expected in northern and western New England, wind chill advisories also cover much of the northern Plains, Upper Midwest and the remainder of the Northeast (south of New York).

Cold is not the only extreme winter hazard of concern.

As the Arctic air arrives Thursday night into Friday, snow squalls may race across New England. Brief but blinding squalls may cause whiteouts, dropping an inch or two of snow in less than an hour, while creating dangerous conditions for motorists. Northern Maine, which is under a winter storm watch, appears to be at greatest risk.

The Weather Service in Caribou warned of “[b]lizzard conditions in blowing snow across open areas” in a tweet.

Wind chill records are in jeopardy

Wind chill warnings were last issued for New England in early 2022 and are issued every few years on average. Although short-lived, this “fierce” Arctic blast will be extreme, the Weather Service said.

“The unusual combination of very cold temperatures in the teens to 20s below zero and strong winds will create wind chills rarely seen in northern and eastern Maine as low as 45 to 65 below zero,” wrote the Weather Service office in Caribou. “Most stations are forecast to see their lowest wind chills in decades or, in some cases, the lowest ever recorded.”

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Forecasts from the Weather Service indicate modern wind chill records of minus-59 degrees in Caribou (1951) and minus-41 degrees in Portland (1971) could be threatened. The average minimum wind chill in these cities each year is near minus-36 and minus-22 degrees, respectively.

On the summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington at 6,288 feet, the wind chill is forecast to fall to minus-100 degrees Friday night as the air temperature tanks to minus-42 degrees amid wind speeds around 85 mph. Its record wind chill of minus-102.6 degrees could be challenged.

Bitter cold wind chills are also forecast for Boston and New York.

Boston is forecast to see a wind chill of minus-30 degrees Saturday morning, the lowest since 2016, when the wind chill plummeted to minus-36 degrees. The Big Apple should see wind chills approaching minus-10 degrees.

Even as far south as Washington, wind chills could dip to near zero Saturday morning.

Actual air temperatures are forecast to be cold, too

Actual temperatures are forecast to fall below zero from northern New York to interior portions of northern New England Friday while freezing highs extend to the Interstate 95 corridor Friday. High temperatures are predicted to about 30 to 35 degrees below normal in western New England.

Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks of Upstate New York may only make it to minus-9 Friday, which would be a record low maximum for the date.

Burlington, Vt., is forecast to reach minus-1 Friday, which would also be a record temperature. It’s predicted to be cold enough, if winds align, to generate some lake-effect snow off Lake Champlain, which is a relatively unusual occurrence.

Low temperatures on Saturday are forecast to be about 20 to 30 degrees below normal throughout much of New England, and about 15 degrees below normal into the Mid-Atlantic region.

Most of New York and New England should fall near or below zero Friday night into Saturday morning. Readings drop as low as minus-25 to minus-35 in northern New England. These values will be above record lows in many areas, in part because of high winds (which prevent limited heat from escaping to space) and also long-term warming from human-caused climate change.

Boston is forecast to reach minus-5 degrees Saturday morning, which would be a record for the date, surpassing minus-2 degree low from 1886, and the coldest on any day since 2016. Worcester, Mass., could reach a record minus-9 degrees, while the Connecticut coast at Bridgeport dips to a record 3 degrees. Even around New York City records could be tested, as lows fall to near 10 degrees.

Lows in the teens are set to extend southward along Interstate 95 to Philadelphia, Washington, Richmond and northern North Carolina. Many of these same locations just experienced a record-warm January, so this chill will undoubtedly come as a shock.

January’s warmth was unprecedented in much of the Northeast

As brutal as the Arctic onslaught will be, it will shuffle in and out of the Northeast quickly. By Monday and into midweek, temperatures are forecast to rapidly warm to readings as much as 15 to 25 degrees above normal.

Explaining the cold air outbreak

The cold will spill into the Northeast because of a lobe of the polar vortex in the troposphere (not to be confused with the stratospheric polar vortex) — spinning near the Hudson Bay region of Canada — set to plunge southeastward.

Two weather systems will work in tandem to drive this frigid air southward: a rapidly intensifying storm — or bomb cyclone — over the Labrador Sea and a very strong zone of high pressure over Ontario and Quebec. The counterclockwise circulation around the storm and clockwise circulation around the high pressure zone will direct cold into New England like interlocking gears.

Temperatures about 5,000 feet off the ground are expected to dip to at least minus-40 Celsius (same in Fahrenheit), which meteorological researchers have called the “creme-de-la-creme” of cold air.

By Friday night into Saturday morning, the air over New England will be about as cold as anywhere in the world outside northern Siberia.

Jason Samenow contributed to this report.