Updated Jan 12, 2024 - Energy & Environment

Extreme weather alerts cover every state as bomb cyclone intensifies

Watches, warnings and advisories across the U.S. on Friday morning.

Watches, warnings and advisories issued by the NWS across the U.S. on Friday morning. Image: NOAA/NWS.

A rapidly intensifying storm that could be one of the most intense on record for the Midwest in January is helping to prompt watches and warnings for the entire Lower 48 states on Friday.

Threat level: The storm's hazards are multifaceted, from "life-threatening" blizzard conditions in Iowa to powerful winds that may cause damage in at least a dozen states.

  • Conditions in Iowa have disrupted campaigning as all eyes are on turnout ahead of Monday's caucuses.
  • In addition, more rounds of severe thunderstorms with possible tornadoes are likely Friday and Saturday across the Southeast, with flooding rains along the East Coast.

Details: The storm, which will reach its maximum intensity over Michigan this weekend — causing waves on the Great Lakes to reach or exceed 20 feet — will help accelerate a push of Arctic air south and southeastward from Montana to the Gulf Coast.

  • This frigid air, which is tied to the configuration of the polar vortex in upper levels of the atmosphere, will be the coldest air many Americans have experienced in several years.
  • On Friday morning, temperatures bottomed out at minus 52°F in Edmonton, Alberta, indicating the significance of the frigid air charging southward.

By the numbers: A cornucopia of extreme weather advisories, watches and warnings were in effect Friday across the contiguous U.S., with no state untouched:

  • 5.2 million people were under blizzard warnings, including other storms affecting the West Coast.
  • 57 million people were under winter storm warnings, watches and advisories for heavy snow.
  • 167 million were under high wind warnings, watches and advisories.
  • 28 million were under wind chill warnings, watches and advisories.

These numbers are likely to grow in some cases during the day Friday as the storm intensifies and moves to the northeast.

Zoom in: The expansive storm in the Central states was located over the Southern Plains on Friday morning, and is tracking northeast into the Midwest. It is likely to qualify as a bomb cyclone due to the rate at which its minimum central air pressure is falling.

  • While severe thunderstorms including high winds and a few tornadoes are a top threat on the storm's warm side, the cold side of the storm is also seeing extreme impacts.
  • The National Weather Service is forecasting a foot or more of snowfall in parts of Wisconsin, northern Illinois and Michigan. When combined with winds gusting to 50 mph, the results will be "blizzard conditions and near impossible travel," the NWS stated in a forecast discussion Friday.
  • The high winds into the weekend will result in widespread travel delays, including at two of the countries' major hub airports, Chicago O'Hare International and Detroit's Metro-Wayne International Airport.

The polar vortex-related frigid air invades

  • The circulation around the storm, along with other features in the atmosphere, will push bitter cold from the northern and Central Plains south into the Mississippi Valley, Southern Plains and eventually the Gulf Coast this weekend and early next week.
  • For Saturday morning, the NWS is forecasting record lows approaching minus 40°F in the Northern Plains, with wind chills potentially as cold as minus 50°F.
  • "Wind chills of this nature can lead to frostbite on exposed skin within minutes," the NWS stated.
  • The cold air will spill into Texas, where the power grid is anticipated to fare better than it did during a more severe freeze in February 2021.

What they're saying: "We call it "life-threatening" for a reason," stated the NWS forecast office in St. Louis. "Temperatures of this magnitude will cause harm if caught outdoors unprepared. Take it seriously. This kind of cold does not happen very often, especially in this extended length - it's rare."

Between the lines: The cold air will also slink into lower elevations of the Pacific Northwest just as moisture reaches the area, causing snow for cities such as Portland, Oregon.

  • Salt Lake City is also in line for snowfall from this weather pattern, and Denver may see a prolonged period of frigid temperatures and light snow.
  • The forecast high temperature in Denver on Saturday is just 5°F.
  • Forecasters are watching for the possibility of a wintry mix to fall in parts of the South Central states early next week, which could significantly hamper travel.

What's next: There are signs the cold may temporarily relent, before a new round of Arctic air pushes southward into the U.S. later in January.

  • At the times of transition between weather patterns, major storms are possible, with some computer models hinting at an East Coast storm early next week.

Go deeper: How to prepare for the polar-vortex related cold snap

Go deeper