The Slatest

Winter Storm Elliott Will Be Intense. We’ve Had Worse.

Expect Arctic air (yes, that’s polar air from the Arctic and Antarctic regions).

Two firefighters shovel snow.
Firefighters clear snow after a snowstorm hit parts of New York in November. John Normile/Getty Images

Yes, a winter storm is about to hit huge swaths of the country, right in time for Christmas. Elliott is expected to bring not just snow but also Arctic air (literally, polar air from the Arctic and Antarctic regions) and rain, which could together create a flash freeze and incredibly icy roads. More than 90 million people are under winter weather alerts across 37 states, and Sunday is expected to be the coldest Christmas in America in roughly 40 years.

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Though winter storm Elliott will feel as if it’s trying to kill you by freezing your face off, it’s not likely to be the most severe winter storm the United States has experienced. Over the past 20 years there have been plenty of insane winter storms. (And yes, it seems they are getting more frequent.) Take Snowmageddon of 2010, when the Washington, D.C., region was hit by two back-to-back storms that dumped nearly 18 inches of snow and caused over 200,000 homes and businesses to lose power. The storms also created icy roads as far away as New Mexico. In 2016 there was winter storm Jonas, which the National Weather Service described as producing “prolific” amounts of snow in parts of the East. West Virginia got about 42 inches, while other states got over a foot. There was also the New York City blizzard of 2006, which blanketed the city in nearly 27 inches of snow and shut down all major airports. And two decades ago, there was the Great Blizzard of 2003, where parts of the country had temperatures no higher than the teens and there was so much snowfall that it caused a 40-foot hole in the roof of the Denver airport.

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The issue is that states like Texas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, which are all in the path of Elliott’s eye, are not designed to handle cold weather. The historic winter storm that happened in Texas just a year ago overwhelmed the state’s electricity grid from a combination of surging demand and freezing temps, causing it to collapse. At least 57 people died, mostly due to hypothermia. The CEO of Texas’ power grid, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, was fired after the disaster for not doing enough to prepare for the winter storm. This time around, the state’s power grid is expected to withstand Elliott—ERCOT says it’s weatherized its equipment and facilities to better hold up in extreme weather.

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Even regions where cold winters are the norm are going to feel harsher than usual: wind chills are expected to be minus 30 degrees from the Northern and Central Plains into the Midwest. That’s important to keep in mind if you’re going outside, as wind chills that low can lead to frostbite on exposed skin in 10 minutes or less. As for the rest of the country, over a foot of snow is expected in the Western Great Lakes, while Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois will get up to 6 inches. Parts of the South will get at least a few inches of snow too. Thousands of flights have been canceled as well—with even more expected.

Here’s a quick timeline of when things will get spicy. Starting Wednesday, Arctic air is expected to spread into the Plains and plunge all the way down south. Some snow, sleet, or freezing rain is also expected. By Thursday—also expected to be the most difficult day to travel—things in the Midwest will start to get dicey, with blizzard conditions setting in. Jackson, Mississippi, will face temperatures as low as 13 degrees, and Nashville, Tennessee, will drop down to 5 degrees.

Then comes Friday, when Elliott is expected to reach its peak intensity with high winds, heavy snow, and blizzard conditions taking over Wisconsin to Illinois and parts of Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. Oh, and high winds are also expected to go as far south as Georgia and the Carolinas. Once we arrive at Christmas Eve and Christmas, the winter storm will have mostly moved away into Canada, with some lingering blowing and drifting snow. Our recommendation for the rest of this week: Sit back with your drink of choice and crank up the Mariah Carey.

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