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Arctic invader puts much of Midwest in deep freeze

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A brutal "polar vortex" gripped much of the Midwest on Monday, pushing temperatures to record subzero lows, grounding more than 4,000 flights and prompting authorities to urge residents to stay home or go to emergency warming shelters.

In Chicago, temperatures dropped to a record 16 degrees below zero at O'Hare International Airport on Monday, spawning a new National Weather Service Twitter hashtag: #Chiberia. Records also fell in Oklahoma, Texas and Indiana.

In Minneapolis, it was minus 18 — minus 40 with the wind chill — and the high was minus 12. Margaret Roth found herself stranded in the Twin Cities, where she had arrived from Florida for a wedding. It was so cold, she said, that the inside of her nose froze.

"This is definitely not normal for me," said Roth, 25. "This is probably the coldest weather I've been in by 40 degrees."

Travel snags rippled across the country. More than 800 flights were canceled out of O'Hare, and JetBlue Airways halted all flights to and from New York and Boston. Flightaware.com said more than 4,000 flights into, out of and within the U.S. were canceled Monday, and more than 7,500 were delayed.

Intracity travel suffered too. The Chicago area's regional commuter rail service, Metra, canceled more than two dozen evening trains because of electronics equipment that couldn't cope with the record cold.

Bitter weather even disrupted the U.S. Senate, which had planned a procedural vote on a measure to restore long-term unemployment benefits. With as many as 17 senators unable to get back to the capital, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) postponed the vote until Tuesday.

Snow often accompanied the chill. Northern Indiana was virtually closed to road travel until early Monday afternoon. More than 50 people had been rescued from trapped cars on a snowy Interstate 65 a day earlier.

The cold alone presented problems for motorists.

"We have a lot of vehicles right now that aren't starting," said Todd Heitkamp, a warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, S.D.

With wind chill as low as 45 to 55 degrees below zero, Heitkamp said, "exposed flesh can freeze in five minutes. If a person isn't dressed properly, and they don't have a winter survival kit in their vehicle, and if they aren't prepared, they'll have to deal with the consequences thereafter."

Ryan Maue, a Florida-based meteorologist for the private weather service WeatherBELL, called the freeze a once-in-a-decade event because of its power and breadth.

"It affects people that aren't used to cold right now," said Maue, speaking by phone from Tallahassee. "I'm in Florida right now, and they're issuing a wind chill advisory because it's going to go below freezing."

Maue described the polar vortex as a lobe of dense, cold air that's normally bound in by a jet stream. This one headed south from the North Pole and brought a lot of wind with it.

"The polar vortex isn't this entity like a hurricane or nor'easter that develops and goes away," he said. "It's a normal feature that's part of the polar climate."

Because of a "multitude of factors," Maue said, a mass broke south and headed toward the U.S.

The National Weather Service said the cold was heading east, and it predicted temperatures more than 20 degrees below normal Tuesday across much of the eastern half of the nation. Los Angeles, meanwhile, reached a high of 78 on Monday.

The Midwest's bitter cold even seemed to shatter common sense. After TV news reporters broadcast video of themselves throwing boiling water in the air and watching it turn to snow, scores of people tried it and posted the results on social media.

"Threw a pot of boiling water in the air. Kids thought it was awesome. Do it, people," tweeted Jason DeRusha, a TV anchor in Minneapolis.

But at least 50 people who tried it hurt themselves or others, a quick survey of Twitter showed.

"So I did the thing where you make snow and not all the boiling water froze and now my head is burned," one user tweeted. Another tweeted a photo of a shirtless friend with his burned arm cooling in the sink.

matt.pearce@latimes.com

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Pearce reported from Los Angeles, Hennessy-Fiske from Houston. Lisa Mascaro in Washington and Richard Wronski and Naheed Rajwani of the Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.

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