On Wednesday, Maine saw its first 70-degree high temperature in February. No where in Maine had it ever reached 70 in February until yesterday when the city of Fryeburg broke that streak. Fitchburg, Mass., hit 80 degrees on Wednesday — the first time any climate station in Massachusetts reached 80 degrees in February.
This heat wave is breaking more records than just those at ground level. The heat is also significant in the upper levels of the atmosphere. It may even be unprecedented in modern record-keeping, though things get tricky when we start talking about extremes above our heads, higher in the atmosphere.
Here’s what we do know, though: Meteorologists (ourselves included) are stunned by the size and intensity of the high pressure over the Eastern part of the nation this week, which is inherently related to the warmth. The bigger the ridge, the hotter it gets.
“This is BANANAS,” tweeted Ryan Hanrahan, a meteorologist and friend of the Gang from NBC Connecticut. He was referring to data collected by weather balloon soundings over Long Island. It was indicating that this week’s ridge was the most intense not only for the month of February, but also for the months of December, January and March. It was also tied for the month of April.
“This is not normal,” Hanrahan wrote Tuesday night.
While the 500mb percentile map shows just how unusual this ridge is, the climatology only goes back to 1979. Washington DC's sounding record goes back to 1948 - the 588 dam height breaks a 70 year record for Dec-Mar by a decent margin. pic.twitter.com/AhxqxRqs83— Tomer Burg (@burgwx) February 21, 2018
The same record-breaking data was collected by weather balloons all over the Northeast Tuesday evening, including the District, where it broke the 70-year record for December, January, February and March. Maps of the ridge shown in red, day-glow pink and white — because it was literally off the scale — look like someone dumped a can of paint across the Northeast. The most intense part of this ridge was out over the Atlantic, but even so it toppled records from New England to Virginia.
The amount of moisture in the air is extreme, too. Summerlike precipitable water, which is how we measure the moisture in the atmosphere, is present across much of the eastern United States this week. In particular, Detroit and Alpena, Mich., set records for that moisture metric. From Michigan to Maine, the moisture in the air was about four times more than what’s normal for Feb. 20.
This week’s heat wave and wild weather are certainly a symptom of climate change, which — according to an overwhelming majority of climate scientists — is caused by our fossil fuel emissions. The intensity of these high pressure ridges has increased significantly since 1960. “Bananas” heat waves, even in the winter months, will become more common due to climate change.
All-time Feb. records on Wednesday
Allentown, Pa. — 81 degrees
Augusta, Ga. — 86 degrees
Concord, N.H. — 74 degrees
Harrisburg, Pa. — 79 degrees
Hartford — 74 degrees
Newark — 80 degrees
Central Park (NYC) — 78 degrees
Portland, Maine — 68 degrees
Washington, D.C. (Dulles) — 80 degrees
Worcester, Mass. — 71 degrees
All-time Feb. records on Tuesday
Pittsburgh — 78 degrees
Indianapolis — 77 degrees
Beckley, W.Va. — 77 degrees
Charleston, W.Va. — 81 degrees
Huntington, W.Va. — 81 degrees
Wheeling, W.Va. — 78 degrees
Cincinnati — 79 degrees
LaGuardia Airport, N.Y.C. — 68 degrees
Washington, D.C. — 78 degrees
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly characterized Pittsburgh’s old February temperature record.