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Don Paul: Forecasts favor a colder-than-average February

Some say February is the cruelest month of all. I suppose “cruel” is in the eye, mind, and feel of the beholder. In the midst of a colder than average winter—where average is cold to begin with—February can take on that quality. Shorter in length, yes, but still very much the heart of winter even though we pass the halfway mark.

As for this particular February, probabilities favor the month ending up as colder than average when all is said and done. Here is a look at the overall upper air pattern in an ensemble average of models over the next 16 days: NOAA animation.

You’ll note a tendency for a ridging of high pressure in western North America, and a tendency for the polar vortex to be displaced a little farther south over eastern North America. This delivers arctic air forced by the ridge to drop to the southeast. The pattern flattens/weakens somewhat later in the month. The amplitude of patterns typically appear weaker farther out in time because the individual models/members in the ensemble spread out more due to greater uncertainty further out in time. They also may show weakening due to actual weakening showing in most of those members.

Within that NOAA ensemble above is the European model, which correctly showed the sharp cold over the Great Lakes on Feb. 2:


However, the European model really relaxes the pattern by Feb. 12, allowing more of a west-to-east flow with the polar vortex retreating northward, and Pacific air replacing the true arctic air:

However, other models don’t warm things up as much as the European. Let’s just say my own judgment and pattern recognition still favors more colder-than-average days than milder-than-average days this month, but it will not be so consistently cold as some earlier predictions indicated, including my own.

In the longer term, February will likely go on being a fickle month. Last year, the month ended up being 8.5 degrees warmer than average, which is huge. The previous 2015 February ended up being not just the coldest February, but the coldest month of any month in Buffalo history, going back to 1871. The average temperature that month was 10.9 degrees, 15.5 degrees below average, which is YUGE! And that unprecedented cold month occurred in a warming climate, in which the vast majority of months have been warmer than average for years. Nationally, record high temperatures have been outnumbering record low temperatures by a ratio of 3 to 1 this decade, and 2 to 1 in the last decade. The ratio has been increasing gradually but more rapidly since the 1980s, as had been forecast in climate models.

When you smooth out all the data over the years, February is the second-coldest month here, losing to January by a smidge. January’s average temperature is 25.3 degrees and February comes in at 25.7 degrees…a barely discernible difference.

Averages, by their very nature, smooth out all the extremes. For example, despite the first week of January being the coldest first week of January on record, the monthly average temperature was just .7 degrees below average. The 11th and 12th of the month had high temps of 61 and 60 degrees respectively, and the 22nd and 23rd had highs of 52 and 53 degrees.

Some people in my generation and older claim to remember winters in their youth where you never saw a blade of grass for the whole season, and that it was cold from beginning to end. That’s just not the way the atmosphere works at our latitude. Even looking back at the snowiest and one of the most brutal winters on record, 1976-77, the brutality didn’t last out the whole season. By February, the temperature was just 1.7 degrees below average after the monumentally cruel January, and March finished 5.8 degrees above average. That March featured five consecutive days of 60 or higher, and a high of 74 and 76 on the 29th and 30th.

The temperature as I’m typing this is 13 with a wind chill of -4. And I have to take the dogs out in a few minutes. I enjoy winter forecasting and its challenges. But my affection for the season goes into shrinkage mode when I’m out there with those goofy dogs, who don’t seem to mind it in the least that I shiver.

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