8 Climatic Facts About Our Abnormally Warm Winter

Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images
Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

It was warm this winter. Freakishly warm, in fact. It was warm enough that we probably should have felt guilty for enjoying it so much. After all, any time you can open your windows when you’re supposed to be shivering and watching travel shows for warmth is a strange situation. Most of the United States just lived through one of the warmest Februarys on record to close out one of the warmest winters on record. Here are some statistics that will show you just how unusually balmy it’s been for the past three months.

1. THIS FEBRUARY WAS WARMER THAN NORMAL.

A map of how warm this February was compared to previous years. Stations showing a ‘1’ experienced the warmest February ever recorded at that location. Image Credit: SERCC

 
It shouldn’t come as any shock that February’s temperatures were above-average when you crunch the numbers. Out of 888 weather observing stations across the lower 48, a solid 60 percent of those stations (or 534 locations) saw their top-10 warmest February on record this year. Even worse is that 186 of those locations—scattered from the depths of Texas to the Canadian border—recorded their all-time warmest February, with some records stretching back more than 100 years.

2. THE WHOLE WINTER WAS WARMER THAN NORMAL.

Not only was this past February a record-breaker, but the whole winter was warm on average. Data from the Southeast Regional Climate Center shows that over half of those 888 weather observing stations in the contiguous United States saw this winter place among the top ten warmest winters ever recorded, with almost all of the toasty stations residing east of the Rocky Mountains. Most of the all-time warmest winter records were set in the southern part of the country, including cities like Houston, Texas, and Raleigh, North Carolina.

3. THE WARMTH KEPT MOST OF THE SNOW AT BAY.

Taken just one day apart in early February, two views of the downtown Manhattan skyline—one warm and sunny, the other obscured by snow—as seen from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Image Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

 
As you can imagine, you’re not going to find very much snow when it’s relatively toasty out there. There have been other winters with less snow than most places saw this year, but the differences are negligible. Take Washington D.C., for example. Washington National Airport, which sits just across the Potomac River from the capital city itself, typically sees about 15 inches of snow every year. They’ve recorded just over an inch of snow this year. On the list of least-snowy winters in the nation’s capital, this winter ranks fourth since records began in 1940.

4. CHICAGO SAW NO SNOW IN JANUARY OR FEBRUARY.

Even more unusual is the fact that Chicago went through the entire months of January and February without seeing one lick of snow cover the ground. According to the city’s National Weather Service office, this was the first time in the city’s 146 years of recording weather observations that they didn’t see any snow on the ground during the dead of winter. The city saw a foot-and-a-half of snow spread out over several storms during the month of December, but all of that snow melted by Christmas. The most they’ve seen since then is a “trace” of snow, which is snow that falls but instantly melts when it hits the ground.

5. THE GREAT LAKES WERE RELATIVELY ICE-FREE.

While we’re looking toward the Midwest, it’s worth noting that the Great Lakes were surprisingly ice-free this season. The five lakes only saw about 15 percent of their surface covered by ice during the season’s maximum extent on February 8, and what little ice did form this year is rapidly melting as warm air continues to bathe the enormous bodies of water. Since NOAA began keeping records back in 1973, a typical winter sees a little more than half of the Great Lakes covered with ice during the peak of winter, but the coverage has been as low as 11 percent, a record achieved in 2002.

6. THE LEAVES LOVED IT, THOUGH.

A map showing how unusually early (or late) leaves first showed up on trees in 2017 compared to normal. Image Credit: USANPN

Humans aren’t the only organisms enjoying the reprieve from winter’s grip. The USA National Phenology Network tracks the extent of trees budding and growing leaves as spring begins to set in. According to their observations, almost every part of the United States that has leaves on its trees right now saw those leaves appear a full three weeks ahead of schedule—what it calls "very large anomalies." This is welcome news for the birds and the bees, but if there’s a sudden cold snap in March—which isn’t unheard of—it could do some serious damage to any plants that are suddenly more vulnerable than normal.

7. THE WARMTH LED TO SOME SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS.

When you put an active weather pattern together with warm and unstable air, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll wind up with strong thunderstorms at some point. We saw several rounds of severe weather this spring, resulting in at least three fatalities on the last day of February. Severe weather is fairly common in the southeast due to its proximity to muggy air over the Gulf of Mexico, but severe weather stretched unusually far north this year. A tornado that touched down in western Massachusetts on February 25 was the only tornado ever recorded in the state during the month of February, and quite possibly the farthest north we’ve ever seen a tornado since reliable records began in 1950.

8. SO WHY HAS IT BEEN SO WARM?

Why has it been so warm in the east and so cool and active out west? It has to do with the jet stream. For the past couple of years, there’s been a huge ridge in the jet stream over the West Coast that kept them warm and dangerously dry, while the jet stream dipped south and brought cooler, more active weather to the rest of the United States. That pattern broke this year, essentially reversing itself and keeping the warmth-inducing ridge out east while the jet stream in the west keeps dipping south and bringing them a steady stream of rough weather. One theory as to why the pattern flipped is the disappearance of the infamous “Blob,” a nickname given to an unusually warm area of water in the northeastern Pacific Ocean. That water cooled off, which may have allowed the jet stream to readjust itself into the pattern we’ve seen this winter.

7 Wintery Facts About Ice, Freezing Rain, and Sleet

Razvan Socol via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0
Razvan Socol via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Whether you’re trying to fly across the country or you just want to buy groceries, a winter storm can have a significant impact on your life. But how can you tell if the ice, sleet, or freezing rain will prompt a winter weather advisory or a snow day from work? Here are a few facts about winter storm weather to help you prepare.

1. Freezing rain and sleet are a winter storm's silent hazards.

Ice in the form of freezing rain and sleet is just as big of a threat as snow, and often result in a winter weather advisory being issued for the affected region. Ice is arguably more dangerous than the fluffy white stuff. Snow is generally manageable: You can shovel it and plow it, and while others are doing the work, you can enjoy a snow day with a cup of hot cocoa. You can’t do that with ice.

For the most part, frozen water becomes solidly affixed to any exposed and untreated surface. There comes a point when ice is entirely unmanageable. Even a giant vehicle with four-wheel drive is useless when it can’t grip the surface it’s sliding on. Ice—mostly from freezing rain—is not only dangerous because of the associated travel hazards, but also because of the damage it can cause.

2. A winter storm with Freezing rain is dangerous.

Freezing rain is rain that freezes when it comes in contact with an exposed surface like a tree or a sidewalk. A small amount of freezing rain can leave a thin glaze of ice on just about any surface, creating a situation where surfaces that look wet are really icy instead. A steadier freezing rain will allow a crust of solid ice to form on trees and power lines, weighing them down to the point of breaking. Extreme ice accretions—over an inch—can cause significant damage and disrupt life for weeks at a time.

3. Freezing rain is actually melted snowflakes.

Freezing rain forms when there’s an inversion layer present during a winter storm. An inversion layer occurs when a layer of warm air gets sandwiched between two colder air masses. Snowflakes fall through the warm layer and completely melt before reentering the subfreezing air near the surface. This newly formed raindrop can’t freeze back into ice because it doesn’t have a nucleus around which to freeze, so the raindrop becomes supercooled, meaning it remains in liquid state even as its temperature drops below freezing. Once the supercooled raindrop reaches the ground, the water instantly freezes into ice.

4. All that ice from freezing rain is extremely heavy.

If you’ve ever had to carry a case of bottled water up a flight of stairs, you know that even a little bit of water is extremely heavy. Imagine even more weight on a much more fragile surface, and that’s what you get during an ice storm. Damage to trees can begin with just a quarter-inch of ice, with more damage to bigger and sturdier trees as the crust of ice grows thicker. The Weather Channel points out that just a half-inch of ice accretion on a standard power line can add 500 pounds of extra weight to the line and the poles supporting it. Extreme ice storms can cause as much damage as an intense tornado, as even a couple of inches of ice adds enough weight to crumple the tall steel transmission towers that carry high-voltage power lines—and those take a while to repair.

5. Sleet is freezing rain's annoying cousin. 

A close relative to freezing rain is sleet. Sleet, also known as ice pellets, forms through the same process as freezing rain. Snowflakes destined to become sleet also fall through a warm layer of air, but one that isn’t deep enough to melt the snowflake completely. Once the partially melted snowflake enters subfreezing air, there are still a couple of ice crystals left in the raindrop that allow the raindrop to freeze into a little ball of ice before reaching the ground. The result is an ice pellet about the size of half a grain of rice that makes a distinctive tinking noise as it bounces off cars, vegetation, and roofs.

6. Sleet is like snow that freezes solid. 

Sleet looks like snow and it accumulates like snow. It’s easy to mistake sleet for snow if you’re not a hardcore weather geek, but with enough accumulation, even the casual observer will know something is different pretty quickly. Sleet has a nasty habit of freezing into solid ice within a few hours of falling, especially if the Sun comes out or if temperatures briefly rise above freezing once the precipitation stops. Once this hardening occurs, it can be next to impossible to remove it from sidewalks, driveways, and roads until there’s a major thaw. In the southeastern United States, sleet is particularly common (and problematic), since the region is prone to warm air intruding on its winter storms and many municipalities don’t have enough snow equipment to clear the roads before that sleet freezes solid.

7. When a winter storm warning is issued, join the grocery lines.

Everyone makes fun of the throngs of panicked shoppers before a snowstorm, but stocking up on groceries before a winter storm is a pretty good idea for even the biggest cynic. If freezing rain knocks out power for an extended period of time, stores and restaurants will be forced to close until power is restored and they get fresh shipments of food. If that happens, you’re pretty much on your own for food and drink until conditions improve. Before a storm arrives, make sure you get plenty of food and beverages that you don’t have to cook or keep fresh.

Lake Michigan Has Frozen Over, and It's an Incredible Sight

Scott Olson, Getty Images
Scott Olson, Getty Images

A polar vortex has brought deadly temperatures to the Midwest this week, and the weather is having a dramatic effect on one of the region's most famous features. As the Detroit Free Press reports, parts of Lake Michigan have frozen over, and the ice coverage continues to grow.

The Lake Michigan ice extent has increased rapidly throughout January, starting around 1 percent on the first of the month and expanding to close to 40 percent by the end of the month. Yesterday was the coldest January 30 in Chicago history, with temperatures at O'Hare Airport dropping to -23°F. Even though it's frozen, steam can be seen rising off Lake Michigan—something that happens when the air above the lake is significantly colder than the surface. You can watch a stream of this happening from a live cam below.

Lake Michigan's ice coverage is impressive, as these pictures show, but it's still far from breaking a record. Though Lake Michigan has never frozen over completely, it came close during the winter of 1993 to 1994 when ice reached 95 percent coverage.

Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana aren't the only places that have been hit hard by the cold this winter. At the United States/Canada border, Niagara Falls froze to a stop in some spots, a phenomenon that also produced some stunning photographs.


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[h/t Detroit Free Press]

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