WEATHER: The Big Freeze

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Why had the rain turned white? Startled millionaires wintering in their baronial mansions in West Palm Beach, Fla., peered closer last week at the miracle that was falling from the skies and discovered—could it be?—yes, the substance was snow, the first ever reported there. Since mid-November, pedestrians in Dallas, unaccustomed to such hazards, have been slipping on sleet-slicked sidewalks. Meanwhile, a series of blizzards has smothered Buffalo this winter with an astonishing 126.6 in. of snow.

From the Dakotas and Minnesota, across the icy Great Lakes of the Middle West and down the Eastern seaboard to shivering Florida, the winter of 1976-77 is already one of the coldest since the U.S. began keeping weather statistics—and the worst may be yet to come. If February roars like January, this winter could be the coldest ever recorded for much of the U.S.—the great winter that millions of Americans will be telling their grandchildren about decades from now.

The dramatic changes in the weather patterns (see following box) that are sending temperatures plummeting across the nation are, ironically enough, warming the one state that is usually frozen stiff. In Anchorage, Alaska, where the thermometer was up to a comparatively balmy 45° last week, the ice was so soft that hockey players went home in disgust. Meanwhile, snowstorms avoided areas that are normally blanketed with white. Rocky Mountain ski operators complained bitterly about the clear skies. Sun Valley, Idaho, the haven of the wealthy and the sedate, had to use snowmaking machines, and even then managed to keep open only three of its 60 runs.

Still, it is the brutal and unrelenting cold—the Big Freeze —that has transformed the inevitable grousing about the weather into personal agony and national hardship. The furies of January have been unrelenting. Alltime low temperatures were recorded last week in Cincinnati (—25), Miami Beach ( + 32), Palm Beach ( + 27). Single-day records for the date were set in New York City (—1); Dayton (—21); and Lynchburg, Va. ( — 8). At —19, Chicago experienced its coldest day in this century. Peoria, Ill. ( — 25), had not been so cold since 1884. In Rice Lake, Wis., the temperature plunged to —60—and for two days dog owners had to push their reluctant pets outside to save their carpets.

It was like living in the Arctic—an ominous reminder of how modern man, so proud of his technological mastery of his environment, remains so vulnerable to its whims. Indeed, his very reliance on energy-consuming machines, vehicles and conveniences contributed last week to widespread suffering. To meet soaring energy demands for heating, electrical utilities ordered temporary blackouts in some communities and reduced voltage in others.

A genuine crisis developed in the natural-gas industry. Suppliers put into effect emergency plans, cutting all deliveries to thousands of industrial users. Company officials pleaded for school closings, shortened business hours, and thermostats to be turned down to teeth-chattering levels in private homes.

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