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'Polar vortex' may ease grip on region

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ST. PAUL -- 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.

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

“The good news is today, Monday, is the worst day," Todd Heitkamp of the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, S.D., said. "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 extreme 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 mid-day.

In contrast, the temperature in Nome, Alaska, 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.

Near Winona, in southeast Minnesota, dive teams found the body of one man near a vehicle that went into the Mississippi River early Sunday. Two other bodies were recovered Sunday afternoon. A fourth person thought to be in the vehicle remained missing late Monday afternoon.

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 go 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 impact on oil output.

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

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

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.

Ski hills across the area closed due to the weather.

Many businesses allowed, or even encouraged, workers to stay home Monday.

Even the beginning of North Dakota's year-long 125th birthday party was indefinitely postponed.

School officials across the coldest part of the Midwest started to call off Tuesday classes as early as Monday morning.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton Monday decided to leave the decision about closing schools on Tuesday to local officials. On Friday, he ordered public schools statewide to close today.

“Tomorrow morning’s temperatures are forecasted to be in the double digits below zero again, with continued wind chill advisories for the entire state until afternoon,” Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius wrote to school leaders across the state Monday.

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

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

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.”

The cold snap attracted international attention.

Chris Muller of the Beltrami County, Minn., 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 dealing with 70 degree temperatures. “We just take it easy and check on our neighbors, especially the elderly.”

Better Upper Midwest weather, although not as good as in Australia, was forecast for later this week, for a while at least.

“There’s always another cold snap out there,” Abeling said. “There is a big mass of Arctic air that could descend upon us about the middle of the month.”

On Monday, Duluth, recorded its coldest morning of the winter so far, hitting 28 degrees below zero at the airport, but for much of northern Minnesota it was just another nasty cold morning in what has been an annoyingly cold winter.

Temperatures dipped as cold as 40 below at Brimson and 37 below at Embarrass, according to the National Weather Service in Duluth. The temperatures were not as cold as last week when temperatures hit 47 degrees below zero in some of the traditionally colder locales.

“I told Embarrass to call back and do better,” Kevin Huyck, an assistant forecaster at the National Weather Service in Duluth, joked about the state’s usually coldest town.

“The wind chill will remain very cold into Tuesday,” Huyck said. “But we’re going to see a gradual warm-up the rest of the week. By Thursday, we’re going to see people in shorts and flip-flops down by the lake (Superior)."

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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