Death toll rises toward 40 in Russia

Arctic temperatures gripping most of Russia pushed the reported death toll close to 40 on Friday as weather forecasters warned that no major thaw is expected in Moscow before February. Five people died overnight in the capital, city ambulance service chief Igor Elkis said. The toll in Moscow, locked in a deep freeze since late Monday, is now at least 16 while the nationwide toll is at least 38.

The true figure, however, is likely higher because many regions have not reported cold deaths. The arctic temperatures have severely taxed parts of the nation's infrastructure, with electricity use surging to record levels as towns and cities struggle to keep indoor temperatures up and Russians turning to supplemental heating sources including electric radiators to keep warm.

Heat to more than two dozen homes and buildings in the center of Moscow was interrupted for nearly three hours Friday after a problem with a major hot water pipe. Dozens of homes in Tomilino, a town outside Moscow that has been plagued by heating problems this week, were without heat overnight because of problems at a plant, but supplies to most were restored by midday, Russian media quoted officials as saying. Supplies of natural gas to homes for heating and cooking have been reported diminished in some regions.

The cold wave was even affecting Russia's southern regions which typically see more temperate winter conditions. In the town of Apsheronsk, some 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) south of Moscow, three people were killed when a gas canister exploded after it was improperly hooked to the heating system in a private home. And in the Caucasus region of Adeigei, a wood stove fire killed two people who were trying to heat their home.

Overnight temperatures in the region near the Black Sea dropped to as low as minus 27 degrees Celsius (minus 17 Fahrenheit) Moscow temperatures were slightly warmer than Thursday, when the minus 31 C (minus 24 F) recorded in the early hours was the lowest on that date since 1927. Friday's low was minus 29 C (minus 20 F) and by Monday the daytime temperature could reach minus 20 C (minus 4 F), Moscow weather service spokeswoman Natalya Yershova said.

A weather service official, however, told Ekho Moskvy radio that temperatures in the capital were unlikely to rise above that mark before February. This winter is the coldest in the capital since 1978-1979, when temperatures reached minus 38 C (minus 36.4 F).

Russians are used to the cold many live in Arctic areas where such temperatures are normal for winter and frustration and suffering mixed with high spirits or ambivalence.

Schoolchildren stayed home, vendors at Moscow's outdoor food and clothing markets shuttered their booths and outdoor ATMs reportedly froze up, while traffic was uncharacteristically light as drivers were reluctant to venture out or unable to start their cars, reports the AP. N.U.