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Wind chills as low as -30 in forecast for Western New York

Four layers on top. Two sets of socks. Thermal underwear under blue jeans. A waterproof face sleeve and an Elmer Fudd-style hat with fuzzy flaps.

That's how Ray Kolb, who drives the Zamboni on the outdoor ice skating rink at Canalside, survives winter.

"It's not too bad. I grew up here," he said Thursday while taking a quick break in a ringside warmup tent. It was a relatively mild 16 degrees outside.

Friday would be another story when the high temperature forecast for Buffalo is a mere 4 degrees. With wind chill, it'll feel like it's -25 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.

"I'll be out here," Kolb vowed.

Zamboni driver Ray Kolb, trying to keep warm at the Canalside ice rink on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2017. (Maki Becker/Buffalo News)

Record-shattering, bone-chattering, hyperbole-inducing cold is descending upon Western New York.

It's so cold Buffalo and Lockport school districts decided Wednesday that schools would be closed on Friday because of worries about kids getting frostbite while waiting for their school buses. By Thursday afternoon, 18 school districts in Erie and Niagara counties, including Niagara Falls, West Seneca and North Tonawanda, had announced they were closing schools Friday.

It's so cold that U.S. Coast Guard cutters are out breaking up ice in Lake Erie so that ships don't get stuck.

It's so cold an ice bridge is forming at the bottom of Niagara Falls.

Think it can't get any colder?

Think again.

What does a wind chill of 30 degrees below zero feel like?

Forecasters project that for the first time since Feb. 8-9, 1934, Buffalo will experience consecutive days where the high temperature doesn't get warmer than 3 degrees.

Plan on readings of -3 degrees overnight Friday in Buffalo with temperatures as low as -10 in other places south of Lake Ontario, the weather service said. Winds will stay brisk, too, dropping wind chill readings as low as -25.

On Saturday, the weather service is forecasting a high of 3 degrees with partly sunny conditions and a slight chance for snow showers. With the wind chill, it'll feel like -25 degrees. Saturday night, the temperature is expected to drop to -1, continuing the streak of cold rivaled only by a few other events of such magnitude in the city's recorded weather history.

Here's a bit of good news:

The recent spate of frigid weather brought Lake Erie down to 32 degrees at Buffalo and the lake is close to 50 percent covered, which means the lake-effect snow machine will be calming down soon.

Also the "cyclone bomb" storm that hit the East Coast on Thursday had no direct impact on Western New York, although several flights in and out of cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston were canceled because of the weather.

On Sunday, things will start getting back to more normal winter conditions, with a high in the mid 20s and by Monday in the mid 30s. There's a 70 percent chance of snow Sunday night and Monday as well, according to the weather service.

Ice breakers

Every winter, the Coast Guard sends out its fleet of ice-breaking cutters to help freighters in Lake Erie get through shipping channels.

"It's going on right now," said Paul Angelillo, a search and rescue controller with the Coast Guard.

This season, the ice is especially hard, he said. "This isn't freeze, thaw, freeze, thaw and a lot of air and stress faults," he said, conditions which make for brittle ice. "this has no give and play in it at all. You can tell the difference."

When the cutters hit this ice, Angelillo said, there's a loud crash. "You shake violently. It's an interesting experience."

What to expect in the next 36 hours: record cold, 'dangerous' wind chills

With temperatures continuing to drop, he said, he expected to see more ice in Lake Erie.

"You're going to see significant development in the next 48 to 72 hours," he said.

Animal instincts

Norah Fletcher, the president of the Buffalo Zoo, checked in with the animals Thursday ahead of the deep freeze.

"Even when it's bitter cold, the polar bears, they love it outside. The snow leopards. The tigers. They love it," she said. So they'll be given the option of staying inside or going outside. "I saw Luna, the polar bear, she's out there laying in the snow and swimming in the pool."

Some animals will be kept inside to make sure they don't get too cold and also to help maintain the warmth of their enclosures.

Fletcher was more concerned about her staff. Humans aren't quite as adept at maintaining their temperature while outside.

"Our team of animal care professionals and our facilities people and groundskeepers are here whether it's -40 below or 100 degrees," Fletcher said. "Their work doesn't change. They're going to be here regardless."

The workers are urged to take frequent breaks and take steps to keep warm.

The zoo will be open through the weekend, Fletcher said, with tickets only $5 per person through the end of February.

Wind chill factor

How cold is a wind chill of -30 degrees below zero?

If you have to be outdoors across the Buffalo Niagara region over the next few days (which is not recommended), you're about to find out.

Weather service forecasters insist precautions must be taken. Dress in at least three layers, they advise. Gloves, hats, boots and a face mask are essential gear.

"Once you get below -20, that's when within 30 minutes, if your skin is exposed, it will result in frostbite," said Heather Kenyon, a weather service meteorologist in Buffalo.

The reason wind chills are dangerous is that the winds and cold temperatures combine to more rapidly pull heat out of the body. A loss of just a couple degrees of body heat can result in hypothermia, according to experts.

It's not immediately possible to determine the last time it felt this cold throughout Western New York.

The National Weather Service doesn't archive wind chill values the way it does air temperatures, but, it's fair to say this will be the coldest Buffalo has been chilled in years.

So bundle up! And stay inside as much as possible.

Here are a few other tips for surviving this cold from the American Red Cross of Western and Central New York:

  • Wear layers of clothing, a hat, mittens and waterproof, insulated boots.
  • Be careful when tackling strenuous tasks like shoveling snow in cold temperatures.
  • Check on your neighbors, especially elderly people living alone, people with disabilities and children.
  • Bring pets indoors. If they can’t come inside, make sure they have enough shelter to keep them warm and that they can get to unfrozen water.
  • Watch for hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia symptoms include confusion, dizziness, exhaustion and severe shivering. Frostbite symptoms include numbness, flushed gray, white, blue or yellow skin discoloration, numbness, or waxy feeling skin.

How to avoid common weather woes in bitter cold temperatures

At the Canalside ice rink, Ray Kolb shared his secret weapon for staying warm: a double-double from Tim Hortons.

"For the calories," he said, patting his belly then hopping back on the Zamboni.

"I've got sunshine ... on a cloudy day," the Temptations taunted as "My Girl" wafted from the speakers at the outdoor ice rink.

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