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Goodbye, polar vortex: Warmer weather is arriving

By Ben Brumfield and Josh Levs, CNN
updated 6:36 PM EST, Wed January 8, 2014
Snow and ice blanket downtown St. Louis and the Mississippi River on Wednesday, January 8. Snow and ice blanket downtown St. Louis and the Mississippi River on Wednesday, January 8.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: As many as 23 deaths in six states are blamed on the storm
  • A one-two punch from the South will drive the polar vortex back home
  • By the weekend, temperatures in much of the country will be above seasonal averages
  • The change will be gradual, which should prevent rapid snow melts

(CNN) -- The 86,000 residents of Duluth, Minnesota, were among the millions of Americans lucky enough to wake up to warmer weather Wednesday. It was only 30 degrees below zero with wind chill.

That was 20 degrees higher than 24 hours earlier.

It may not be as fast as most Americans want it, but a new weather pattern is, at long last, sending the iceman packing.

A Southern one-two punch is set to knock the mighty polar vortex back up to Canada.

A blustery high-pressure area rising from the Southwest to the Northeast will throw the Arctic blast a broad left hook this week, pushing it into the upper Midwest and Plains states. Then, balmy Southeastern air will rush up from the Gulf and hit it straight on to finish the job.

Time lapse captures polar vortex effect
Below-freezing temps in all 50 states
Travelers stranded across the country
Cold weather tips from a polar explorer

Case in point: Chicago, which is already known for cold winters, but this week has been nicknamed -- even by the National Weather Service -- "Chiberia."

The city saw a high of only 3 degrees Tuesday, but that jumped to 15 on Wednesday, with 25 expected on Thursday. By Friday, temperatures should be above freezing, CNN meteorologist Sherri Pugh said.

By Saturday, across the country, most highs will be at or above average, she said

In New York, it was just 4 degrees in Central Park on Tuesday, still well off the all-time low of 15 below zero in 1934.

But by Saturday, New Yorkers will be thawing with highs over 50 degrees, the weather service said.

North Dakota, which saw some of the worst weather this week -- with wind chills in the 50s below zero -- will drift back into normal winter lows in the 20s.

In Atlanta, where temperatures have dipped to single digits, expect a balmy 63 degrees this weekend, CNN meteorologist Indra Petersons said.

(Some rain will hit the Plains on Friday and the East Coast on Saturday, but let's deal with that then.)

None of this means the immediate dangers are over.

Buffalo, New York, had its first blizzard warning in 20 years, with up to 2 feet of snow and howling winds creating white-out conditions.

The warmer weather will come gradually, which could help prevent some flooding.

23 deaths blamed on storm

Authorities are blaming this week's freezing weather for as many as 23 deaths across six states.

A man in Akron, Ohio, was found dead in his driveway by a postal worker on Tuesday, Akron Police Lt. Richard Edwards said. Investigators believe the cold weather played a role.

Two people died in a traffic accident in Missouri, state officials said. One was a child, killed when the car he was in struck a snow plow.

In Michigan, four people died while shoveling snow, officials said.

Indiana's Winter Storm Joint Information Center says six deaths are blamed on the weather.

Wisconsin health officials say three deaths were most likely due to the weather. And in Illinois, the Department of Public Health said seven deaths are presumed to be related to the weather.

Winter weather advisories have been issued for later Wednesday, into Thursday morning, for parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi.

The National Weather Service issued a freeze warning early Wednesday for Gulf Coast regions, where palm trees swayed in an icy breeze.

Some relief has already arrived for travelers.

There were fewer flight cancellations by Wednesday evening, totaling more than 860, according to flightaware.com. On Tuesday, 2,700 flights were canceled. On Monday, that figure was more than 4,000.

JetBlue cancels Northeast flights to rest crews

This week's rare polar vortex will be remembered in part for temporarily turning geographic warm and cold spots on their heads.

On Tuesday, it was warmer in Anchorage, Alaska, where temperatures were in the 20s, than it was in Atlanta and Cincinnati, which saw respective lows of 7 and minus 7 degrees -- lower than they'd seen since the mid-1990s.

CNN's Kevin Conlon, Catherine E. Shoichet, Steve Almasy and Marlena Baldacci contributed to this report.

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