It's cold in Pittsburgh, but it's colder elsewhere

Temperature needs to dip to 40 below before school's out in Alberta

Summer warmth is no good, wrote John Steinbeck in "Travels with Charley," without "the cold of winter to give it sweetness."

By that rationale, expect a saccharine summertime, with another arctic blast hitting roughly the eastern two-thirds of the United States this week, closing schools and shutting down some city services in Pittsburgh today. Temperatures were expected to fall as low as 11 below zero overnight in Pittsburgh, according to the National Weather Service. Today's low was forecast at minus 9, with wind chill making it feel as cold as minus 27, the weather service said. That would tie the coldest temperature recorded at Pittsburgh International Airport so far this winter: minus 9 on Jan. 7, a record for that day.

The record for Jan. 28 was minus 10, set in 1977. The high for today will be just 4 degrees and a wind-chill warning remains in effect until 1 p.m. today, with the weather service warning of the potential for frostbite and hypothermia for those who fail to take the cold seriously.

Patrick Herold, a meteorologist in the weather service's Moon office, said the system -- which is sending temperatures plunging across a huge swath of the United States and causing a rare bout of sleet, snow and freezing rain along the Gulf Coast -- is a major "dip in the jet stream" toward the South.

"Weather's made up of averages," Mr. Herold said. "You get these cold events that are part of it. ... It's not unusual. It's just wintertime."

However, Brian Edwards, a meteorologist with State College-based AccuWeather, said the scope of the cold snap and the accompanying wind make the high-pressure system unique.

"It's the magnitude of the cold and the wind along with it creating these dangerous wind chills that we normally don't see in Western Pennsylvania," said Mr. Edwards, whose State College-based company's Pittsburgh forecast was for a high of 8 and a low of minus 5 . "That's what makes this a unique situation."

Dozens of local school districts are closed or delayed, trash collection in Pittsburgh has been postponed and the U.S. District Court is closed. Mayor Bill Peduto said residents should put out trash one day later than usual, so residents who get Friday collection should put their cans out Saturday.

The city will also open warming centers from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the following locations:

* Greenfield, 745 Greenfield Ave.

* Homewood, 7321 Frankstown Ave.

* North Side, Allegheny Center, Allegheny Square

* Sheraden, 720 Sherwood Ave.

* South Side, 12th and Bingham streets

Catholic Charities also has established a warming station Downtown with hot drinks, snacks, toiletries and cold weather clothes at the Susan Zubik Welcome Center, 212 Ninth St., which will be open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.

And PJM Interconnection, the electrical grid operator for more than 61 million people in 13 states and the District of Columbia, including Pennsylvania, is asking customers to set thermostats lower, avoid using major appliances and turn off unneeded lights to conserve electricity today, especially this evening, when demand is expected to be highest.

"PJM continues to carefully monitor the power supply conditions," the organization said in a news release. "PJM and its members will do everything possible to keep power flowing in the region."

But as cold-weather hype gripped the United States, Matt Richter, transportation director for the 5,800-student Northern Lights School Division, which includes the city of Cold Lake in the Canadian province of Alberta, chuckled at the forecast for Pittsburgh.

"That's balmy," he said.

Mr. Richter, 44, said the school system, which includes widely dispersed communities about 460 miles north of the Montana border and 182 miles northeast of Edmonton, rarely lets winter weather get in the way of classes.

Northern Lights doesn't cancel school unless the temperature falls under minus 40 degrees Celsius (40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit) or there is a wind chill of minus 45 (minus 49 degrees Fahrenheit).

"It's just a way of life, unless it gets severe," he said.

"I went to school at [minus 63.4 Fahrenheit] as a kid. You didn't want to put your ear to the window on the bus because it might freeze."

But maybe no one is better positioned to put the cold weather in perspective than Mike Schmetzer, who grew up in Homestead but left for the University of Alaska Anchorage in 1981 and stayed for good.

Mr. Schmetzer, city engineer and public works director for the city of Fairbanks, said the same system sending temperatures here plummeting made it possible for him and his family to eat out on their deck in toasty 51-degree weather.

"Whenever the central U.S. gets any kind of cold snap, we get unseasonably warm weather here," Mr. Schmetzer said.

But that's an aberration 90 miles south of the Arctic Circle, where temperatures routinely fall to 50 below.

"Whenever I talk temperatures, it's always negative. Because it's always below zero," he said.

Schools stay open, though they cancel outdoor recess if it's colder than 20 below. Other municipal services continue uninterrupted.

"I'm still picking up the garbage at minus 55. I stop plowing roads at minus 30," he said. "It's pretty hard on the plows."

Trash collectors, however, wear special arctic gear, get warm-up breaks and ride in the cab between stops.

"They're not hanging off the back of the truck, that's for sure," he said.

However, if you take no solace in the fact that people elsewhere are colder, a reprieve may be in sight.

About 20,000 people are expected to watch Punxsutawney Phil emerge from his burrow on Sunday at Gobbler's Knob and give his prediction on this winter's duration.

"Even though it's been cold lately, it does give people something to do outside and enjoy the winter, since it's not going anywhere just yet," said Katie Donald, executive director of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. "We'll have to see what Phil predicts."

Robert Zullo: or 412-263-3909. First Published January 27, 2014 5:00 AM

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