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Sub-zero wind chills, and record cold on tap

For a few days at least, Philly will be colder than Anchorage; a record is possible Thursday.

A pedestrian is caught in a snow squall on the campus of Drexel University in Philadelphia. The National Weather Service is forecasting temperatures to drop into the single digits overnight.
A pedestrian is caught in a snow squall on the campus of Drexel University in Philadelphia. The National Weather Service is forecasting temperatures to drop into the single digits overnight.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Snow squalls that moved through Philadelphia in advance of an arctic front that have sent temperatures cascading, and the region is about to get a taste of Chicago.

The squalls were brief, but furious -- winds gusted to 52 mph at Philadelphia International Airport — and the arrival times were problematical.

A massive pileup was reported on Route 222 near 422 in Wyomissing, Berks County.

“The temperatures are going to crash,” David Dombek, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. The dropped from 35 to 24 just between 2 and 3 p.m. at Philadelphia International Airport.

By 6 p.m., the National Weather Service said it had fallen to 19 with a wind chill reading of 2.

Temperatures were heading to single digits overnight.

The region also is under a wind and wind-chill advisories, for 20- to 30-mph winds with gusts of 40 to 50 mph.

All things considered, if you aren’t particularly fond of the facefuls of frigid air and below-zero wind chills expected the you probably would prefer Anchorage, Alaska, to Philadelphia between now and Friday.

In Anchorage, temperatures were above freezing Wednesday, with almost no wind.

And come Thursday, with a forecast high of 18, Philadelphia could set a Jan. 31 record for lowest daily maximum temperature. The record is 21, set in 1935. Readings are not expected to go above freezing until mid-morning Sunday.

Before you complain, that high in Anchorage on Wednesday will be about 40 degrees better than Chicago’s forecast high of 10 below zero.

And, yes, that is frigid even by Chicago standards: It hasn’t been that cold out that way in 24 years. (“We’ll survive,” said Amy Seeley, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Chicago, where, by the way, employees are getting paid again.)

The contrasts between temperatures in the 49th state and the Midwest and East are related, meteorologists say, as a piece of the polar vortex has migrated to the mid-latitudes, draining some of the cold air from the Arctic regions.

The invasion is tied to the so-called Arctic Oscillation, which has been in a phase that promotes the southward spillage of polar air, said Matt Rosencrans, head of forecast operations for NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

However, Rosencrans said the frigid conditions are likely to persist for only a few days, as the overall pattern doesn’t favor an extended siege of cold. And forecasters are seeing no sign of significant snow in the near future.

Philadelphia will be spared the Chicago experience, as the core of the cold air will moderate substantially as it slides eastward over land masses.

Nevertheless, wind chills are forecast to go as low as 7 below zero, and temperatures will tumble into the single digits early Thursday.

Philadelphia has declared a “code blue” alert, which frees up extra shelter beds for people found sleeping outside.

Elsewhere, a number of school districts in the outlying suburbs opened two hours late Wednesday while Cheltenham Township, which opened at is regular time, announced an early dismissal for Wednesday afternoon.

In Kensington on Tuesday, teams of outreach workers were preparing to clear out the last major homeless encampment in the city: the Emerald Street camp, whose drug markets draw scores of people in addiction.

The camp is set to be cleared on Thursday morning as temperatures plummet.

Tim Sheahan, director of homeless services at the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, said the intense cold could help persuade people in the camp — and others sleeping rough across the city — to accept a bed at a shelter or treatment facility.

The cold should moderate on Friday, and the next significant precipitation, early next week, is going to be rain, said Dombek. Temperatures on Monday could pass 50.

He said any chance of significant snow will have to wait until at least late next week.

In the short term, Seeley said, she would offer Philadelphians the same advice she offers Chicagoans.

“I feel like a parent sometimes,” she said. “Common sense should prevail.”