US forecasters warned of life-threatening weather as a winter storm threatened to wreak havoc on holiday travel plans for millions of Americans, like those at Chicago's O'Hare airport

Chicago (AFP) - More than 2,200 flights were canceled across the United States by Thursday afternoon as a massive winter storm named Elliot upended holiday travel plans with a triple threat of heavy snow, howling winds and bitter cold.

At least five US states – Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, Georgia and North Carolina – have already implemented emergency plans and others are likely to follow, with the worst of the Arctic blast yet to come.

“This is not like a snow day when you were a kid,” President Joe Biden told reporters at a White House briefing on the weather and transport turmoil.

“This is serious stuff,” he added, urging people to heed warnings from local authorities.

Blinding whiteouts and hazardous road conditions were already being seen in parts of the country slammed by a dangerous cold front.

Beyond the 2,200 cancellations as of 2200 GMT, more than 6,900 other flights within, into or out of the United States have been delayed, according to flight tracker FlightAware.

The majority of US flights called off have so far been at Chicago O’Hare or Denver, both international hubs, the data showed.

AccuWeather forecasters have said the storm could rapidly strengthen into what is known as a “bomb cyclone” through a process known as “bombogenesis,” when the barometric pressure drops and a cold air mass collides with a warm air mass.

National Weather Service (NWS) forecaster Michael Charnick tweeted a video showing drivers struggling along a highway between Colorado and Wyoming, where the temperature with wind chills plummeted to -40 degrees Fahrenheit (-40C).

President Joe Biden speaks during a White House briefing on the winter storm system traversing the United States

The NWS released key safety messages on its Twitter account, warning snow squalls – bursts of moderate to heavy snow lasting an hour or two – had already happened or were expected from the Central Plains to the mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

“People exposed to extreme cold are susceptible to frostbite in a matter of minutes,” the agency cautioned.

“Areas most prone to frostbite are uncovered skin and the extremities, such as hands and feet. Hypothermia is another threat during extreme cold.”

Conditions were cold enough for people to post videos of themselves carrying out the “boiling water challenge,” where boiling water is thrown into the air and instantly freezes.

“We created our own cloud @ -17° F (-27° C) at the #Missoula International Airport,” tweeted NWS Missoula, in the western state of Montana.

- ‘NO TRAVEL advised’ -

In the Midwest, blizzard conditions stranded 100 motorists in Rapid City and Wall in South Dakota, the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office tweeted.

“NO TRAVEL advised,” the sheriff’s office added.

In Minneapolis and Saint Paul, more than eight inches (20 centimeters) of snow accumulated over a 24-hour period, the NWS said in a Thursday morning update.

Farther east in Buffalo, New York, forecasters called it a “once-in-a-generation storm” with wind gusts of more than 65 miles (105 kilometers) per hour, wind chills as low as 10 to 20 degrees F below zero, and power outages.

Passengers queue up to go through security at Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus, Michigan, on December 22, 2022

Across the border, eastern Canada was bracing for similarly blustery conditions, with heavy snowfall and rapidly falling temperatures.

The country’s busiest airport in Toronto was already feeling the crunch from the weather chaos, with delays and cancellations mounting.

The storm comes as the Transportation Security Administration said it expects holiday travel volume to be close to pre-pandemic levels, with the busiest day on Thursday, three days before Christmas.

The American Automobile Association estimated that more than 112 million people will travel 50 miles or more from home between Friday and January 2, the vast majority of them – 102 million – by car.