The coldest air many places have seen in years (and even decades) will descend upon the eastern U.S. this evening, producing dangerous and record-breaking low temperatures on Thursday and Friday stretching from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast. Lows close to zero will reach as far south as South Carolina.
This is a pretty ugly setup to see in the winter months, and it's one we more commonly see in January as opposed to the end of February. This afternoon's atmosphere features a deep upper-level trough digging through the eastern halves of Canada and the United States; while the West stays warm under a ridge, the steep north-south orientation of the jet stream is allowing a direct belt of Arctic air to filter deep into the United States, all the way down to the Gulf.
The resulting cold snap will shatter daily, monthly, and even all-time low temperatures records across many regions of the Ohio Valley, Appalachians, and Southeast on Thursday and Friday mornings. Areas farther to the west (Chicago and Indianapolis, for example) will experience the coldest weather tonight, while Friday morning looks to be the coldest in most of the Eastern Time Zone.
In the heart of the cold blast around the Ohio Valley, low temperatures on Friday morning will drop more than 30°C below average for this time of the year, bringing many locations to the brink of their all-time record low temperatures. For example, the lowest temperature ever recorded at the airport in Charleston, West Virginia, was -16°F back in January 1994. The Weather Channel predicts a low of -16°F on Friday morning. Records in Charleston date back to October 1948.
While other locations may not come close to breaking their coldest temperatures on record, many spots will likely break daily and monthly record lows. National Airport in Washington D.C. is a notoriously warm spot in the region, as its temperature readings are influenced by the airport's urban surroundings and location on the banks of the Potomac River. The airport's lowest February temperature was 4°F back in 1961, and that record could shatter like a thin sheet of ice if The Weather Channel's forecast of 0°F pans out on Friday morning.
These are just the low temperatures. Many locations will also set "record low maximum" temperatures on Friday, especially. A record low maximum is the coldest high temperature recorded on a particular date. At The Vane's nerdquarters in the middle of nowhere in central North Carolina, the high temperature on Friday will be 16°F. That will be the coldest high temperature we've seen since January 1972. It's a generational cold snap.
This blast of cold air still doesn't change the fact that this winter hasn't been as bad as it sounds both on the news and on social media. Outside of New England, the United States has had it relatively easy this year when it comes to cold weather. Temperatures in the eastern U.S. have largely been within one degree of normal, and a couple of days of extreme cold won't have much of an effect on three months' worth of averages.
The good news for the winter-weary among us is that a developing weekend storm will travel farther north than storms in the past week, allowing warmer weather and rain (liquid rain!) to fall on many areas that haven't been so lucky over the past week. The latest run of the GFS model suggests that a storm system colloquially known as a "Texas Hooker" will develop over the southern Plains on Friday and race towards the Great Lakes and New England on Saturday, briefly producing some snow and a wintry mix in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast before warm air filters in and allows precipitation to fall as all rain.
This news is a mixed blessing—those of us in places like North Carolina will bask in the liquid sunshine and enjoy temperatures around 60°F on Sunday, but cities like Boston, which have about twelve million feet of snow on the ground, really don't need an abrupt warm-up accompanied by heavy rain. The sections of New England that have deep snow pack (read: everywhere in New England) will need to be on ready alert for some major flooding concerns if the track of the storm stays consistent with current predictions and a relatively warm rain falls on the region.
In the meantime, we have to get through this record bout of Arctic fun before we think about the warm-up. If you live in a region that doesn't typically experience temperatures this staggeringly cold, make sure you drip your faucets and take precautions to make sure your pipes don't freeze. Don't leave your pets outside over the next few nights, either—as the social media cliché goes, "if you're cold, they're cold."
Don't forget about the kids, either. Many school systems will opt to close for the day or operate on a delayed opening due to the bitter low temperatures on Thursday and Friday. If your school district decides to let kids come in late, make sure you wrap them in warmth like an educated burrito. A two- or three-hour delay for cold weather is just for show—it's designed to make you feel better while keeping the district from having to incur a lost instructional day. They know that there's not much difference between waiting for the bus at 6:30 AM and waiting for the bus at 8:30 AM, but it gives parents false comfort while doing nothing to keep kids from developing frostbite or hypothermia.
Make sure you, your kids, your pets, and your home are all well-protected over the next couple of days.