January was frigid in parts of the U.S., but it was actually pretty warm around the world

 


Bundling up and heading to work in Milwaukee on Jan. 28. (Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP)

January was a really, really cold month in the United States. We know this because January was the month many of us were introduced to the polar vortex, the bitterly-cold air mass that made temperatures plummet around the country (with the windchill hitting 56 degrees below zero in Minnesota at one point).

But it turns out that while it was cold, it wasn’t that cold, historically speaking. In fact, despite the frankly absurd cold that occurred in many places during the month, no single state in the contiguous United States (a.k.a. the Lower 48) saw their coldest January on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center.

The overall average temperature in the Lower 48 was the coldest since 2011, but it was only 0.1 degree Fahrenheit below the average for the 20th century, as Jason Samenow of the Capital Weather Gang points out.

Why? Well, the frigid cold in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Southeast was counterbalanced by “above-average temperatures” west of the Rocky Mountains. Arizona, California and Nevada — three states facing a drought — all logged January temperatures among the 10 warmest on record, the NCDC reports.

(Over the course of December and January, below-average temperatures were recorded in much of the Lower 48 to the east of the Rockies, while temperatures in the western U.S. were near or above average.)

Still, it was plenty cold in many places. The average temperature in the Northeast, for instance, was 4.1 degrees lower than normal. And the region’s 10 days that saw temperatures fall below zero was the largest such number of days in January and tied with February 1979 for the most days below zero in a single month. In the West, coastal states were much warmer and drier than normal, which exacerbated the ongoing drought conditions.

Globally, though, the winter faced by a chunk of the U.S. was the exception. The worldwide temperature in January was the fourth-warmest on record and the warmest since 2007. (Samenow points out that this marks 347 consecutive months of above-normal warmth, writing that you’d need to go back to February 1985 to find a cooler-than-normal month on this planet.)

Several countries experienced really abnormal warmth. France tied 1988 and 1936 for its warmest January on record, while Switzerland posted its fifth-warmest January since national records began 150 years ago. Spain experienced its third-warmest January since it started keeping national records in 1961, while China noted its second-warmest January since it began keeping records the same year.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the cold continued into February (with the National Weather Service warning that another batch of arctic air was going to hit “the Eastern two thirds” of the country this week). NOAA reports that 88 percent of the Great Lakes were frozen as of mid-February:

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.

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Mark Berman · February 24, 2014