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Burst pipes, power outages: Great Lakes region recovers as winter storm rolls on

The winter storm affecting most of the continental U.S. has left thousands of Midwesterners dealing with icy repercussions.

CHICAGO (CN) — The upper Midwest woke to subzero temperatures Friday morning, and all the troubles that come with them.

Across the region, multiple towns and cities reported power outages, frozen pipes and perilous travel conditions.

"This is a tough one," Wisconsin Assistant State Climatologist Ed Hopkins said in an interview. "[The storm] is coming at the most inopportune time. It's straining the nation's infrastructure." 

In Michigan alone, over 20,200 people had no electricity as of midday, with outages in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin affecting an additional 10,500 people. Residents also faced significant delays on local commuter trains, and hundreds of canceled flights.

The winter storm causing all these problems began to hit the area Thursday afternoon, and according to the National Weather Service it is unlikely to abate until Saturday morning. At Chicago's O'Hare airport, the noon high temperature was reported at -4 degrees Fahrenheit, with a wind chill temperature of -41 degrees.

At least nine deaths across the nation have been attributed to the storm as of Friday afternoon, including three in Kentucky, according to Democratic Governor Andy Beshear.

Despite the dangerous arctic conditions, NWS meteorologist Kevin Doom said the storm is unlikely to break any records in the Great Lakes region.

"The only records we're flirting with are low temperatures," Doom said, noting that the storm had produced less snow than initially anticipated. The current low temperature record in Chicago was set on Jan. 20, 1985, when the ambient temperature plummeted to -27 degrees Fahrenheit with wind chill below -60 degrees.

Further west, the portion of the same storm system that hung over Colorado did break at least one record. At the Denver International Airport, the NWS reported that temperatures dropped 37 degrees Fahrenheit - from 42 to 5 degrees - in a single hour.

The system is being driven by an influx of cold air being pulled south by a jet stream moving across North America, Hopkins said, affecting more than two-thirds of the continental U.S. 

"Two-thirds at least," Hopkins said. 

Hopkins agreed with Doom that while the storm is uncommon for its size and severity, it's not unprecedented. The Midwest region is climatically inclined to harsh winters, as it has little protection, save the Great Lakes themselves, from polar air travelling south. 

Hopkins also said that while large winter storms can be hard to predict, their severity may ironically be amplified by global warming. A warmer planet means more water vapor in the atmosphere, driving more storms and heavier precipitation. Changes in atmospheric temperature can also disrupt the flow of air over the continent, making for unpredictable weather systems.  

"If you have warming at the tropics and in the polar regions, you change those atmospheric circulation regimes," Hopkins said.

Relative warmth in the upper Midwest is expected later in the last week of 2022, after the storm finally breaks. According to the NWS in Chicago, the Great Lakes could see temperatures as high as 50 degrees by New Year's Day. Like the storm itself, NWS meteorologist Scott Baker said in another interview that this sudden rise in temperature after a cold snap is uncommon, but not unheard of. What it augurs for the region's climatic future is unclear. 

"There's no real way to say, like, 'it's a precursor of things to come,'" added NWS meteorologist Scott Baker in a sperate interview. "It really depends on the pattern of the entire globe."

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