The most significant winter storm of the 2023-2024 winter season has plunged Wyoming into a deep freeze with dangerous double-digit subzero temperatures and wind chills as low as minus 50. It’s also hammering most of the United States, and will continue to pummel much of the country through the weekend.
There are concerns about flooding along the East Coast, while at least a foot of snow and blizzard conditions are expected throughout the Midwest. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has issued a disaster declaration because of the expected dangerously cold temperatures, and even Texas could feel some frostbite.
In Wyoming, the dangerous cold and wild chills also canceled a weekend high school skiing competition at Hogadon Basin Ski Area in Casper.
“This is widespread in terms of the strength of the storms,” said meteorologist Brett McDonald with the National Weather Service Office in Riverton. “We’re on the southwest side of that push of extremely cold air. Most of it’s going down from the northern plains into the Central Plains, and it's going to be impacting a lot of people in the central part of the country.”
In Wyoming, Wind Chill and Winter Storm warnings are in effect for most of the state, stretching across the entire weekend and into next week. The National Weather Service warns Wyomingites it won’t just be cold, this weather pattern is bringing “dangerous cold,” especially overnight.
“The tough thing with this is that not only are we getting below zero temperatures, but combining those gusty winds, which makes it feel like it's below minus 20,” McDonald said. “And that can be very dangerous.”
This is the latest of several surges of frigid air descending from the north. When the next surge arrives, it will mean different things for different parts of the Cowboy State, but everyone will feel the cold.
The Wind Chill Is How Cold?
Every corner of Wyoming is feeling the brunt of the latest surge from the polar vortex.
“The whole state is being impacted,” McDonald said. “Areas that aren't necessarily getting snow are getting very strong wind, which is southwest Wyoming. Other areas are dealing with the extreme cold.”
North, central and northeastern Wyoming are already enduring “the worst” of the subzero wind chills. Friday wind chills were as low as minus 25 in Casper, minus 30 in Cheyenne, minus 45 in Cody and minus 48 in Gillette.
“The coldest nights are probably tonight and Sunday night into Monday morning,” said Cowboy State Daily meteorologist Don Day.
“That's when the combination of the coldest air and the strongest winds will make it the worst," Day said. "A lot of central and northern Wyoming will see between 20 and 30 below zero, but I'm being a little conservative. Then tonight and tomorrow morning, there's going to be wind chills of 40 to 50 below zero.”
Meanwhile, Evanston and Jackson are mildly warmer, with wind chills around minus 20, but also getting up to 6 inches of snowfall on Friday alone. The Jackson Hole Ski Area has received more than 40 inches of snow over the last five days.
Several more inches of snow are expected over the weekend, but Day said southwest Wyoming has yet to experience “the worst” of the subzero wind chills. The reckoning there is coming in a few days.
“The southwest corner of the state is actually going to escape at least the first few surges of Arctic air through Sunday,” he said. “The mountains will be able to hold it back until probably Monday or Tuesday. Then, the next surge will probably push that arctic air over the mountains and into that part of the state.”
The culprit behind the subzero wind chill is Canada. It’s a classic polar vortex when low-pressure weather systems carrying cold winds from the Arctic descend on the lower half of North America.
“This is true Arctic air,” Day said. “We're releasing this Arctic air into the Lower 48 out of Canada. As its Arctic air moves south, it gets closer to the warmer, more moist air in the areas to our south. And along that boundary, where the collision of these two very different air masses takes place, is where you start to see the storms develop.”
Day said the current cold weather calamities nationwide are being caused by the latest in a series of surges from the polar vortex. And it won’t be the last.
“The first push of cold came in yesterday,” he said. “This is the next push. There's a strong surge overnight tonight into tomorrow morning coming. Then we'll probably have another Arctic surge push in late Sunday and into Monday.”
These collisions are why wind chills are so cold and getting colder. Polar vortexes don’t need outrageously strong winds to create catastrophically cold wind chills, even though many Wyoming communities are still experiencing wind gusts as high as 50 mph.
“The colder it gets, the less wind it takes for those wind chills to drop off,” Day said. “This is a dangerously cold situation that will go on for days.”
There are already enormous travel impacts across the Lower 48. More than 1,800 domestic flights have been canceled because of frost and subzero temperatures. Some areas of the East Coast have experienced flooding, while power outages are a problem across much of the U.S.
For professional football fans, this weekend's cold is expected to impact some games.
Saturday's first round AFC playoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins will be played in Kansas City, Missouri, where the game could be the coldest on record for both teams.
Sunday's AFC playoff game in Buffalo, New York, with the hometown Bills and the Pittsburgh Steelers expects at least a foot of lake-effect snow and strong, cold winds. The NFL is considering moving that game to Cleveland if it can't be played in Buffalo.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation partially closed Interstate 80 and U.S. Highway 30/287 between Rawlins and Laramie for all light and high-profile vehicles because of “extreme blow-over risk.” South Pass, U.S. 287/WY 789 between Lander and Farson, was completely closed because of winter weather.
Most of the other state and federal highways are experiencing anywhere from Low to High Impact because of slick driving conditions. Meanwhile, the Bridger Teton Avalanche Center issued an Avalanche Warning covering the Teton Range and Jackson because “a generally weak snowpack is being rapidly loaded by continued snowfall and strong winds.”
McDonald believes Friday will be the worst of the travel impacts, at least on Wyoming’s highways.
“(Friday) should be the most impactful in terms of the weather because of the combined snow and wind visibility,” he said.
That snow might not make things worse on corridors like I-80, but it will be impactful.
"We are going to see off and on snow, especially in the South, over those four days,” Day said. “We will see significant snow along the I-80 corridor, Evanson to Cheyenne, between today and Monday. That’s going to be impactful.”
Serious About Safety
Winter weather won’t leave Wyoming for a while. With more polar vortex surges anticipated over the next few days, both Day and McDonald said the safety of people and pets should be prioritized.
“People really need to take this seriously when it comes to pets, livestock, and checking on the elderly,” Day said. “This is where people who pull out the space heaters need to be really careful. A lot of times in these Arctic outbreaks, you have fires because people are using space heaters or some type of heater to unfreeze pipes. This is a dangerously cold situation and a dangerous storm.
“Be prepared with what you got, where are you traveling, and check your local forecasts for the latest information,” McDonald said.
Andrew Rossi can be reached at email@example.com.