Even Sharks Are Freezing to Death: Winter Rages and the Nation Reels

The Chicago River this week. Two cold-related deaths were reported in the Chicago area, where temperatures are expected to drop into the single digits this weekend.

ERIE, Pa. — Shivering, snowbound cities are scrapping their outdoor New Year’s Eve countdowns. Polar-bear plunges are being canceled because of fears of frostbite and hypothermia. Winter-hardened towns are gaping at their new lows: 32 degrees below zero in Watertown, N.Y. Minus 36 in International Falls, Minn.

Record-breaking snowfalls have stranded older and disabled residents inside their homes for days. Cars are buried under mountains of snow, and lethally low temperatures are forcing cities across the Northeast and Midwest to open emergency “warming centers” for homeless residents and people whose furnaces are no match for the cold.

A mass of Arctic air now has much of the north half of the country wrapped in an icy bear hug, and meteorologists expect the single-digit temperatures to stick around for at least another week.

“It’s been hell around here,” said Rick Pakela, 73, a retired welder and maintenance worker in Erie whose family was stranded inside their home this week as the city was buried under five feet of snow.

As the pileup progressed, Mr. Pakela said his pregnant granddaughter began having trouble breathing and started vomiting. Mr. Pakela said his own truck had been blocked in their driveway, and health problems prevented him and his wife from leaving the house. The family called 911 and waited as firefighters dug a path to their door so they could take his granddaughter to the hospital.

“We were all a nervous wreck,” Mr. Pakela said.

Their neighbor, Mary Foley, 72, spent three days behind a wall of snow that came halfway to the top of her front door. A 12-year-old who lives down the street trudged through the drift to bring her a plate of ham, green beans and mashed potatoes as a Christmas dinner, and Ms. Foley, who lives alone, said she had stretched the food out over three days, not knowing when she would be able to get out.

On Thursday, she was one of about 60 Erie residents waiting for volunteer crews to arrive and dig her out.

“I can’t go to the grocery store or to church or anything,” she said. “I just stay in the house. That’s all I can do.”

Law-enforcement officials said the weather was a factor in several deaths across the country, including two cold-related deaths in the Chicago area and a rollover car crash that killed four people in Kansas. The plunging temperatures prompted cities to urge homeless residents to seek shelters.

In city after city, the heaps of snow and relentless cold bedeviled government services. The deep freeze made it harder to melt icy streets with rock salt, public-works officials said. In Western New York and Pennsylvania, snowplow drivers trying to clear the streets faced an obstacle course of immobilized cars. Cities warned drivers to dig them out and move them, or said they would be towed.

Waterways turned just as treacherous as roadways. In Northern Michigan, two freighters got stranded in the icy St. Marys River and had to be freed by American and Canadian Coast Guard ships.

Temperatures dropped to negative 15 degrees in Pittsfield Charter Township, Mich., where firefighters spent two freezing, soaked days trying to douse a huge warehouse fire. The spray from their hoses iced their gloves and turned their uniforms into suits of armor. Fire hydrants didn’t work. Valves froze. The ladders and buckets that extend from their trucks were sheathed in ice.

“Everything freezes up,” Chief Sean Gleason said. “You just can’t get the chill out of your body.”

Along the New England coast, the cold appeared to be at least partially the culprit in the deaths of three thresher sharks found washed up on the shores of Wellfleet and Orleans on Cape Cod over the past several days, according to scientists.

“If you’ve got cold air, that’ll freeze their gills up very quickly,” said Greg Skomal, a marine scientist for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. “Those gill filaments are very sensitive and it wouldn’t take long for the shark to die.”

Mr. Skomal hypothesized that the sharks, which are usually about 12 feet long, had begun to make their way south as northerly waters cooled, but got trapped by Cape Cod, as have wayward dolphins before them, and pushed up onto the beach, where the cold may have hastened their death.

Scientists from the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy said they had collected tissue samples and organs from the sharks to be examined “once they thaw.”

And while the weather lifted business in popular ice-fishing and snowmobiling destinations, other cities said they were forced to scuttle their holiday celebration plans. Omaha, where temperatures may dip to negative 22 degrees on New Year’s Eve, decided to postpone its holiday fireworks. The milk-jug drop in Defiance, Ohio, was canceled because of the cold. The annual celebration in Times Square was still a go, though temperatures in New York could be as low as 10 degrees when the ball drops.

President Trump took to Twitter on Thursday to mention the chill — and take a shot at climate science.

“In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record,” he wrote. “Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming.”

While scientists routinely find themselves explaining that day-to-day weather patterns are not the same as long-term climate trends, they also widely agree that human-caused climate change is exacerbating extreme weather.

In Erie on Thursday, Carole Van Duzer said she was just glad she had been able to dig herself out and get back to work.

Her furnace stopped working during the storm, and the repair company told her their truck was stuck and could not reach her house through the thigh-high snow. The temperature inside her home sank to 56 degrees, then to 43 degrees by Wednesday morning.

Ms. Van Duzer, 60, and her 20-year-old daughter, Alyssa, cloistered themselves in their living room, firing up their gas fireplace and turning on their space heaters. They hung sheets over the doorways and made sure to run the water to prevent the pipes from freezing.

“It felt like we’d been living in a war zone,” she said. “The whole thing was just exhausting.”

By Thursday, patches of blue sky were poking out from the clouds, and Ms. Van Duzer was ready to be done with the winter ordeal. But her reprieve may not last. More snow is expected for the weekend.

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