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Bitter and Balmy: Local Highlights from an Astounding February

By: Bob Henson 4:11 PM GMT on March 02, 2015

We won’t have the full state-by-state picture of February’s U.S. climate for a few days, but the outlines are abundantly clear from city climate summaries issued on Sunday. It’s been almost 40 years since the nation has seen a month so starkly divided between a cold east and warm west. The statistics bring to mind early 1977, when snowflakes fell for the first and only time on Miami Beach’s art deco buildings while skiers in the Rockies found themselves hunting in vain for fresh powder. A more distant analog for the sharp eastern cold is January 1934, as evident in the records broken below. This year millions of people experienced either the warmest or coldest February for their locations, with records in some cases going back more than 100 years. A number of cities had their coldest average temperature for any month on record—truly stunning in a climate that’s running close to a record-high global air temperature. Meanwhile, February proved to be the warmest winter month ever documented across a huge swath of the West. Alaska wasn’t as consistently warm as parts of California through the month, but a few extremely mild air masses pushed into the state, helping produce the first thundersnow on record in Nome and an all-time monthly high of 53°F in the town of Homer.

Figure 1. Instead of slowly rising through February, as climatology would have it, daily highs and lows in Syracuse, NY, sagged into colder and colder realms as the month went by. Each dashed column represents one month, with dark blue traces showing observed highs and lows. The green band indicates 30-year average highs and lows, with pink and blue showing daily record highs and lows, respectively. Image credit: NWS/Binghamton, NY.

Below is just a sampling of the many monthly records set at various points in the past four weeks. One hint of the state records to come: according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center, Maine had its coldest average temperature of any February, with a mere 2.5°F for the entire state.

Coldest month on record
Bangor, ME: 6.1°F, old record 8.4°F (Jan. 1994)
Syracuse, NY: 9.1°F; old record 12.1° (Feb. 1934)
Buffalo, NY: 10.9°F; old record 11.6° (Feb. 1934)
Rochester, NY: 12.2°F, old record 12.6°F (Feb. 1934)
Worcester, MA: 14.2°F; old record 14.4°F (Feb. 1934)

Coldest February on record
Caribou, ME: 2.8°F; old record 4.1°F (1993)
Portland, ME: 13.8°F; old record 13.9°F (1934)
Youngstown, OH: 13.7°F; old record 15.2°F (1934)
Cleveland, OH: 14.3°F; old record 15.2°F (1875)
Chicago, IL: 14.6°F; tied with Feb. 1875
Hartford, CT: 16.0°F; old record 16.5°F (1934)
Harrisburg, PA: 20.9°F; old record 21.4°F (1934)

Warmest winter month on record (Dec., Jan., Feb.)
Salt Lake City, UT: 43.9°F; old record 42.9°F (Feb. 1907)
Reno, NV: 46.3°F; old record 46.0°F (Feb. 1995)
Seattle, WA: 48.8°F; old record 48.7°F (Feb. 1977)
Portland, OR: 49.2°F; old record 48.8°F (Feb. 1991)
San Francisco, CA (downtown): 59.5°F; old record 58.9°F (Feb. 1986)
Las Vegas, NV: 60.0°F; old record 58.6°F (Feb. 1995)

Warmest February on record
Flagstaff, AZ: 39.7°F; old record 38.2°F (Feb. 1947)

Figures 2 and 3. The nation’s split climate of the last month is captured in these contrasting images taken near (left) Hollister, CA, on Feb. 24 and (right) Freeport, ME, on Feb. 19. Image credits: Jan Null (left), wunderphotographer capritaur (right).

How it felt on the ground
The most concentrated impacts were felt in Boston, where multiple storms left a record snow total for any month (64.8”, smashing the previous record of 43.3” from Jan. 2005) and a year-to-date total of 103.9” as of Sunday night, March 1. That’s less than 6 inches from the all-time seasonal snow record of 107.6” set in 1995-96. The scrappy residents of Boston coped with the snow as best they could, drawing on more than a few dashes of bleak humor, but this event was truly a disaster for countless people in the Boston area who lost days or weeks of pay because of transportation snarls. Though fewer in number, residents of Maine dealt with cold and snow that were arguably the worst in a lifetime for many who are accustomed to dealing with harsh winter weather.

If we pull back to examine the winter as a whole, it’s the western warmth that really stands out. More than 20 reporting stations saw their warmest winters on record, including San Francisco, Las Vegas, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Portland, Oregon. December was very mild nationally (the 2nd warmest in 120 years of U.S. record keeping), which blunted the ability of the last few frigid weeks to set any coldest-winter records in the eastern U.S. Flowers are blooming on California hillsides weeks ahead of schedule. Pleasant as all this might seem to folks freezing in the East, the warmth and relative dryness have left much of the West vulnerable to major drought impacts in the coming summer.

The next post will be Wednesday at the latest.

Bob Henson

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The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.