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Millions endure record cold, with no power, as polar vortex bears down
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Millions endure record cold, with no power, as polar vortex bears down

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A winter storm that left millions without power in record-breaking cold weather claimed more lives Tuesday, including four family members who perished in a Houston-area house fire while using a fireplace to stay warm.

The worst U.S. power outages were in Texas, affecting more than 4 million homes and businesses. More than 250,000 people also lost power across parts of Appalachia, and another quarter million were without electricity following an ice storm in northwest Oregon, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks utility outage reports. Four million people lost power in Mexico.

It’s as if the world has been turned upside-down, or at least its weather. You can blame the increasingly familiar polar vortex, which has brought a taste of the Arctic to places where winter often requires no more than a jacket.

Around the North Pole, winter’s ultra-cold air is usually kept bottled up 15 to 30 miles high. That's the polar vortex, which spins like a whirling top at the top of the planet. But occasionally something slams against the top, sending the cold air escaping from its Arctic home and heading south. It’s been happening more often, and scientists are still not completely sure why.

This particular polar vortex breakdown has been a whopper. Meteorologists call it one of the biggest, nastiest and longest-lasting ones they've seen, and they’ve been watching since at least the 1950s. This week’s weather is part of a pattern stretching back to January.

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