January Average Temperature Departures

The first two months of meteorological winter (December 2019 – January 2020) were the warmest on record for the contiguous U.S. in data going back to 1895. January 2020 the fifth warmest January on record in all 48 contiguous states. The states saw above- to much-above-average temperatures last month. This was the ninth consecutive January with temperatures at least nominally above the 20th century average for the month.

Thirteen states had a top-ten-warmest January, including every New England state except Vermont.

Dozens of cities east of the Mississippi River were reporting one of their warmest winters to date from December 1 through February 17, according to the Southeast Regional Climate Center. All of the big cities of the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, from Boston to Washington, D.C., have seen less snow than usual.

January was also quite damp for the Lower 48 and ranked in the wettest third of the 126-year climate record.

The National Climate Report, January 2020 by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Centers for Climate Information said:

The average January temperature across the contiguous U.S. was 35.5 degrees F (5.4 degrees above the 20th-century average) and ranked fifth warmest in the 126-year record.

January’s precipitation for the contiguous U.S. was 2.70 inches (0.39 of an inch above average), which ranked it in the wettest third of all the Januarys on record. January precipitation extended a rather wet 12-month stretch: February 2019 through January 2020 was the third wettest such period ever recorded, 4.99 inches above average.

Last month, much-above-average wetness was observed across the Pacific Northwest as well as portions of the central and southern U.S.

Washington and Oklahoma

Washington state experienced its fourth-wettest January, while Oklahoma saw its sixth wettest on record.

Great Lakes

Much-above-average temperatures were observed across much of the Great Lakes and Northeast as well as parts of the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, the southern Plains and West.

Michigan Wisconsin Rhode Island

Michigan ranked fifth warmest, while Wisconsin and Rhode Island ranked sixth warmest. No state in the Lower 48 ranked average or below average for the month.

Temperatures during the first part of winter were warm enough across the Great Lakes to keep surface water temperatures above freezing across a large portion of the basin. As a result, lake-effect snow events become possible much later in the season than on average, which can lead to higher seasonal snowfall totals. Basin-wide ice cover spiked briefly at the end of January — approximately 35 percent of average for this time of year. Lake Erie, which averages just over 50 percent ice coverage at the end of January, was only 0.4 percent frozen on January 31.

Alaska, the contrast

In stark contrast to the record warmth experienced during 2019, the Alaska average January temperature was −6.2°F, 8.4°F below the long-term mean. This tied with 1970 as the 13th coldest January on record for the state and the coldest January since 2012.

Daytime highs

The nationally averaged maximum temperature (daytime highs) was warmer than average during January at 45.1°F, 4.6°F above average, ranking as the tenth warmest January in the 126-year record. Parts of the West, High Plains, Great Lakes and Northeast had temperatures, which were much-above-average for the month. Only a small pocket of below-average maximum temperatures was evident across the Four Corners region.

Overnight lows

The nationally averaged minimum temperature (overnight lows) during January was 26.0°F, 6.2°F above average and ranked as the third highest January average in the 126-year record and the warmest overnight low temperatures since the record warm January of 2006. Twenty-eight states ranked much-above-average with Michigan ranking third warmest and Wisconsin, Ohio and Rhode Island ranking fourth warmest minimum temperature for the month. No state ranked below-average for minimum temperatures during January.

Warm outpaced cold

Warm records in January outpaced cold records by a twelve-to-one margin. As of February 6, there were 3,731 warm daily high (1,381) and low (2,350) temperature records tied or broken during January. There were approximately 299 daily cold high (209) and low (90) temperature records set during the month.

Precipitation

The January precipitation total for the contiguous U.S. was 2.70 inches, 0.39 inch above average, and ranked in the middle third of the 126-year period of record.

During January, much-above-average wetness was observed across the Pacific Northwest as well as portions of the central and southern U.S. The state of Washington ranked fourth wettest while Oklahoma ranked sixth wettest on record.

The Great Lakes continue to be at or near or record water levels during January. A record wet 2019 around the Great Lakes contributed to these high water levels, which are not expected to recede for many months. If precipitation across this region remains above average, it will take even longer for the lake levels to fall. Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron set records for high water level during January.

An NPR report – “How Warming Winters Are Affecting Everything” – said on February 18, 2020:

“The cold seasons are warming faster than the warm seasons,” says Deke Arndt, chief of climate monitoring at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information. “The colder times of day are warming faster than warmer times of day. And the colder places are warming faster than the warmer places.”

In the U.S., that means winters in both Maine and Alaska are around 5 degrees Fahrenheit hotter on average since the early 1900s. One reason: The snowpack, which is a good reflector of sunlight, is melting earlier in the season. With fewer days of snow cover, sunlight is absorbed into the ground and warms the surrounding area.

The report mentioned some of the changes happening around the U.S.

CALIFORNIA

The nation’s largest economy and largest agricultural industry is heavily reliant on snow that falls high in the Sierra Nevada, which acts like a giant reservoir. The snowpack lasts through the winter and melts in late spring and early summer, sending a steady supply of water to farms and cities when they need it most.

But with warming temperatures, California’s snowpack is shrinking, both because of increased snowmelt and because more precipitation is falling as rain instead of snow. Across the West, snowpack has already shrunk by 15% to 30%.

“That can have profound ramifications, west of the Rockies especially, when the timing of snowmelt is really important to how we operate reservoirs and share water with each other,” says Arndt, of NOAA.

With runoff flowing earlier in the year, California’s reservoirs may not be able to capture enough to supply the state during the long dry summer. For one thing, reservoirs cannot be kept completely full during winter because they might be overwhelmed by floodwaters. And when warmer winter storms cause rain to fall on top of California’s snowpack, it dramatically increases the risk of devastating floods.

Warmer winters are also affecting the fruits and vegetables that California sends around the country. The state produces the majority of the country’s supply of almonds, wine grapes, walnuts, pistachios and peaches. But many of those crops require a certain amount of cold weather, what is known as “chill hours.” Without that, pollination can be delayed or incomplete, reducing the crop that farmers get at harvest time.

According to one study, cold temperatures that many orchard crops need could decrease by as much as 60% in California’s Central Valley by 2100. Apples, cherries and pears, which require the longest period of cold weather, could be hit the hardest. That has many in the agricultural industry looking for ways to adapt, whether it is breeding more heat-tolerant trees or finding chemicals that can help trees bloom on a predictable schedule, even when the winter weather is anything but.

SOUTHEAST

For decades, the Southeast actually got cooler while the rest of the country warmed. But now it is warming too, and that includes winters, with the length of the freeze-free season increasing in some places by as much as a week and a half.

That is a problem for farmers, who need cold temperatures for their plants to set fruit. The winter of 2016-2017 was too warm for Georgia peaches, for instance, and about 80% of the crop failed.

Blueberries — a bigger crop in the Peach State than peaches are — also struggle.

“When you talk to blueberry producers and peach producers, they’re definitely looking at new hybrids that are more welcoming to low chill hours and different kinds of weather patterns,” says Pam Knox, an agricultural climatologist at the University of Georgia.

An unusually warm January in Atlanta has also been a headache for beekeepers. If it is not cold enough, honeybees fly out of their hives and queens might start laying eggs. As they expend energy, the bees eat more of the honey they stored for the winter. If their calendar gets too out of whack from the blooms they need for nectar, they risk starvation.

Then there are the mosquitoes that can carry vector-borne diseases. Different species have different needs, but in general, cold winter temperatures kill them or slow down their reproduction cycles.

It is already warm enough in the South for the mosquito species that can carry dengue, chikungunya and Zika. In some parts of Florida, the mosquitoes can be active year-round. According to the latest National Climate Assessment, dengue cases could go up across the Southeast in the summer, and West Nile will likely increase too.

NORTHEAST

In Maine, skiing, snowmobiling and ice fishing are an important part of the winter economy. Greg Sweetser, of the Ski Maine Association, says ski areas are preparing for climate change by expanding into summer businesses, such as mountain biking.

“It’s an insurance policy to some degree,” he says. “The climate is changing, it’s unclear how incremental the change will be, so ski areas are being proactive.”

Ice fishing is already seeing days shaved off its season in southern Maine, because the window for when lakes freeze over is shortening, says Mark Latti of the state’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. And one of Maine’s largest lakes, Sebago, used to freeze over every other year, he says. “Now it’s once every three years or so.”

Warmer winters have also helped fuel the expansion of a pest that affects outdoor enthusiasts throughout the year: ticks.

Deer ticks transmit several diseases, including Lyme, which has grown from a few hundred cases in Maine more than a decade ago to a high last year of more than 2,100. Cases of another tick-borne disease, anaplasmosis, have also surged in the state to more than 680, up from just single cases in the early 2000s.

Deer ticks first appeared in southern Maine in the mid-1980s, but researchers at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute’s Lyme and Vector-Borne Disease Laboratory say their range now extends to the northern reaches of the state.

Vector ecologist Chuck Lubelczyk says warmer winters also help create a more hospitable climate for other species and the diseases they carry. The lone star tick has already been found in Maine, dropped by migratory birds from the south. Historically, it has not been able to survive the winter, but that is changing.

“This tick is slowly moving its way up the Eastern Seaboard,” Lubelczyk says, and is now established in southeastern Massachusetts. “If it does arrive and gets established in Maine,” he says, it will be “a game-changer, because it is highly aggressive.”

MIDWEST

Generally, warmer Midwest winters have implications from agriculture to recreation.

Freezing stops the microbes in soil from breaking down organic matter. Todey says that this contributes to the quality of Iowa’s dark, rich cropland. Soils father south, where it is warmer, lose organic matter because bacteria, fungi and other critters keep munching through it all winter long.

Todey says another problem is when the temperature warms after a hard frost and then rain falls onto frozen ground. That is bad because it can cause soil to wash away.

A freeze can also help protect future crops.

“There are certain pests and diseases that cannot survive cold temperatures. They simply die off,” says Rick Cruse, a soil scientist at Iowa State University. But “as the temperature warms, there are more of those that survive.”

Warm winters are even worse for certain fruit and nut trees, which require chill hours during the winter. If they do not get enough of those, they will not produce the following season.

Michigan’s cherry trees have struggled with erratic winter weather. And the repeated freeze-thaw cycles of the 2018-2019 winter, among other weather anomalies, destroyed Iowa’s chestnut crop last year.

MOUNTAIN WEST

The most visible impact of warming winters in the Mountain West is on the forests. Millions of trees have died from pine, spruce and pinyon ips bark beetles over the past three decades.

Normally, bark beetles die off in freezing temperatures. “When you have periods of temperature that do not reach the lethal level for the insects, that’s when you start seeing increased survival of the population,” says Jose Negron, a research entomologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Warmer temperatures and record-low precipitation can also make trees more susceptible to infestation. The most damaged areas are in and around Rocky Mountain National Park and parts of the San Juan Mountains, the West Elk Mountains and the Sawatch Range.

“Forty to 50 percent of the mature spruce in the state has been killed during the epidemic,” says Seth Davis, an assistant professor of forestry at Colorado State University. Davis’ recent study found that warmer winter temperatures meant slightly bigger spruce beetles that emerged earlier and flew around longer.

While beetle outbreaks of this size have happened in the past, warmer temperatures might have an impact on their frequency. The impacts are complex, says Davis, but not necessarily all negative. Fewer trees mean more light reaches the forest floor, where flowers now grow. His research finds this is benefiting bee populations.

Another noticeable impact of warmer winters is on the region’s important ski industry.

Ski areas at lower elevations, as in California, feel these changes the most. “They’re the ones that are going to be seeing, really, a loss of skiing altogether in 50 years or more,” White says.

TEXAS

In recent years, warmer winters have caused Texas’ famed bluebonnet wildflowers to appear months before people expect to see them.

The climate shift also allows migrating monarch butterflies to survive in Texas later than usual.

“In cold winters, they’ll have two or three sightings along the Gulf,” says Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch. In a warm year, “you’ll get butterflies that are sighted from Florida all the way to over to the middle of Texas and even into the San Antonio, Austin area.”

The great migration of monarchs to Mexico already faces many pressures. Taylor thinks that continued warming during their breeding season and migration and over the winter may one day help end it altogether, leaving small “islands” of nonmigrating butterflies around the Gulf Coast.

Then there are the Mexican free-tailed bats that gather each year outside San Antonio, one of the world’s largest bat colonies. They are also a nightly summer tourist attraction in downtown Austin.

“They shouldn’t be here,” says Austin wildlife officer Sarah Whitson. Most bats usually migrate to Mexico or become inactive in the fall, but she says more have stuck around longer the last several winters.

“It’s great if there’s food sources here throughout the winter,” she says. But she worries what could become of the bats if a sudden cold snap kills off the bugs they eat.

Bats play a key role in agriculture, helping to control pests and to fertilize and pollinate some crops. Changing migration patterns could also hurt crops that depend on them, creating what scientists call a “mismatch.”

Researchers are seeing more mismatches as a result of climate change, says Norma Fowler, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “You can get plants that bloom before the pollinators are available,” she says. “You can get birds that come north before the insects are out for them to eat.”

ALASKA

On Alaska’s western coast, thick winter sea ice has long protected remote villages from storms. But that ice cover has been freezing later and shrinking to record lows, allowing strong waves to eat away at land made fragile by thawing permafrost. After years of struggle, the village of Newtok late last year started moving residents to safer ground farther inland.

Inupiat on Alaska’s North Slope use sea ice as a platform from which to hunt bowhead whales and walruses. Diminished ice in the Arctic is making those harvests more difficult.

Poor ice formation is also making it riskier for Alaskans who rely on ice roads, built on some of the state’s rural rivers during winter, to move freight and other goods. In recent years, residents have blamed warm temperatures for the deaths of a number of people whose snowmobiles or all-terrain vehicles fell through thin ice.

The state’s oil industry needs hundreds of miles of ice roads over land for its operations, which are specially designed for freezing conditions. Companies are investing in technology to help them cope with steadily shrinking winters.

Alaska had an unusually cold January this year, but the state is warming twice as fast as the global average. In Anchorage, a city defined by its winters, this means residents are recalibrating their relationship with the coldest season.


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