Cherry trees near peak-bloom covered with snow in Washington, March 14, 2017. (Dimitris Manis via Flickr)

Washingtonians will remember March for a rare, weird and confusing reversal in the usual progression of the seasons: It was colder and more winter-like than it was in February.

Following February’s record-shattering warmth, many believed winter was over. Flowers were in the bloom, and days in the 70s outnumbered those in the 40s.

A record high of 80 degrees on March’s first day only reinforced the notion that winter had caved to spring. Washington’s famed cherry blossoms were on track for their earliest bloom in recorded history.

But the warmth of February and to begin March typified what scientists have called a “false spring,” because — more often than not — the true character of the season eventually reveals itself.

In March’s second week, a sneaky and strong cold snap roared into town, and winter was back in full force. Temperatures plummeted, a cement-like mass of snow and ice poured down, and about half the cherry blossoms perished.

The cold eased in the month’s final third, the cherry blossoms showed off a muted peak, and finally spring was here to stay.

The month closed a full half degree colder than February, marking the first time the months have been reversed since 1984. Since records have been maintained in Washington, dating back to 1872, March has averaged as cold or colder than February just eight times.


(Ian Livingston)

What makes this situation even stranger is March’s average temperature was still 0.4 degrees warmer than normal. But February was so mild, 8.7 degrees above normal, that even average temperatures in March would’ve matched it.

March’s average temperature of 47.2 marked the 10th warmer-than-normal month in a row in Washington.

Precipitation (rain and melted snow) totaled 3.19 inches, .29 inches below normal, but represented the wettest single month since last June. The total matches 2007 and is the eighth-driest of the 2000s.

The two inches of mid-month snow amounted to 0.7 inches above normal and marked our snowiest month since February 2016.  Baltimore picked up slightly more at 2.3 inches, and Dulles tallied 5.7 inches.

Here is a listing of the March extremes in Washington:

It’s funny to see our warmest day in March being on the first of the month, with the coldest weather being within a week of the start of spring instead. The 0.96 inches of rain we logged on Friday (March 31) marked the single wettest day since Dec. 6.

Six “daily” records were broken at our three airports during the month.

March records

Washington

  • March 1: Record high of 80 (tying old record 80 in 1976)

Dulles International Airport

  • March 14: Daily record snowfall of 4.1 inches (old record 4 inches in 1999)
  • March 15: Record low maximum temperature of 31 (old record 32 in 1993)
  • March 25: Record high temperature of 78 (old record 76 in  2003)
  • March 31: Daily record rainfall of 1.46 inches (old record 0.95 inches in 1976)

BWI

  • March 15: Record low maximum temperature of 31 (old record 31 in 1993)

The March weather pattern

The big-picture weather pattern was very variable over the United States, but it was the first time the Northeast averaged cooler to colder than normal since April of last year:


The upper-level pattern for March 2017 favored a warm ridge of high pressure over the Southwestern United States that extended over much of the nation.  A cool upper-level trough or dip in the jet stream clipped the Northeast. The Mid-Atlantic resided in the transition zone between warmer anomalies south and west, with cooler temperatures to the northeast.


Warm and dry first quarter of 2017

The close of March ends our first quarter of the year (January-March). Thanks to the record warm February, temperatures rank second-warmest since 2000. The 45.7 average temperature spanning January to March is also the third-warmest on record, following 2012 and 1990.


In terms of precipitation, thanks to the modest recovery in March, this year’s first quarter ranks as only the sixth-driest of the 2000s, with 6.62 inches to date.

If you’re wondering, having a dry start to the year does not guarantee a hot and dry summer. In some drier cases, like 2004 and 2009, we experienced cooler summers.


March forecast review

How’d we do?

The temperature forecast

We called for an average temperature 4 to 6 degrees warmer than normal. The anomaly was actually 0.4 degrees warmer than normal. So our forecast was in the right direction, but not nearly warm enough.

The rain forecast

We called for below normal rainfall of above 0.5 to 1.5 inches below normal. The anomaly was 0.29 inches. So the month was a little wetter than we expected.

The snow forecast

We went below normal, which ended up being wrong with the mid-month snow event that pushed snowfall totals a little above normal at all area airports.

Summary review

We had the right direction but wrong intensity on both temperature and rain, but were the wrong way (finally!) for snow.

Grade: C+  (What do you think?)

This is why winter has been more spring-like this year. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)