Since the winter solstice on Dec. 21, Washington’s weather has taken an excursion toward a far more southern clime. With an average high temperature of 54 degrees, the weather has best matched the typical winter conditions in Atlanta.
Because of human-induced climate warming, winters like this — characterized by a lack of extreme cold and spotty snowfall — may become the norm this century.
Multiple studies have projected that the climate of the Mid-Atlantic region will turn more southern over the coming decades. This means shorter winters with far less bite. From a practical standpoint, you may find yourself needing heavy coats, scarves and hats far less, and hitting the golf links rather than the ski slopes.
This winter is merely a sneak preview; it is tied strongly to a weather pattern in the Arctic, which is preventing frigid air from escaping the northern latitudes, as well as to long-term climate change.
This year’s warmth in perspective
Mild weather has been eerily persistent this winter: Of the past 54 days, 45 have been milder than average. On a stretch from December into January, 17 days in a row were milder than normal. Through Wednesday, we have seen a streak of 20 consecutive mild days.
Extreme cold has been notably absent. For only the fourth time so late in the season, we’ve yet to see freezing temperatures for an entire calendar day.
The lowest temperature at Reagan National Airport this winter was 22 degrees.
“In one regard, this winter’s lack of extreme cold is almost unprecedented in the existing climate record for Washington DC,” the National Weather Service tweeted. “Only one other winter has failed to drop below 22 degrees by this point — The winter of 1931-1932.”
Overall, this winter ranks as the sixth warmest on record dating back to 1872.
The lack of cold air has meant rain has fallen far more often than snow. Just 0.6 inches of snow has fallen this winter, which is the seventh least on record.
Just like a typical winter in Atlanta
Data analysis from the Southeast Regional Climate Center shows a striking match between this year’s weather in Washington and typical winter conditions in Atlanta. That city’s average winter high and low temperatures are 54 and 36 degrees, which is exactly what Washington has seen since the solstice.
Washington’s 0.6 inches of snowfall is also close to Atlanta’s average snow of just over an inch.
Mild winter fits the trend
The mild temperatures this winter are consistent with a warming trend observed since the late 1800s. Washington’s average winter temperature has risen at a rate of about 3.4 degrees per century. The average winter temperature has risen from about 35 degrees in the late 1800s to 39 degrees today.
At the same time, average snowfall has declined from around 22 inches in the late 1800s to around 10 to 15 inches today.
Washington’s winter climate now resembles Richmond’s about 100 years ago.
The observed warming trend is in keeping with the global shift, with warming of about 1.8 degrees observed worldwide since 1900. January tied for the hottest such month on record worldwide, and February is off to an exceptionally mild start as well.
The University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science has developed an interactive Web application that projects how the climate of cities all over North America will shift over the next 60 years because of increasing concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The climate of Washington is projected to take quite a journey, over 700 miles to the south and west.
Even for a scenario in which greenhouse gas emissions are significantly reduced from today’s levels, Washington’s climate is expected to most closely resemble that of the city of Paragould in northeast Arkansas by 2080.
For a scenario in which emissions continue unabated, our climate may match that of Greenwood, Miss., where the average winter temperature is 10 degrees higher than Washington’s. However, some climate scientists think this aggressive emissions scenario has become less likely, judging by the trends.
A study published by the researchers who developed this Web application shows that for the lower emissions scenario, Washington’s climate could plausibly resemble conditions in a fairly broad zone from the Virginia Tidewater through Atlanta to southeast Oklahoma by 2080 (see Fig. 1a. in the study). For the higher emissions scenario, the zone from between the area around Charleston, S.C., to Dallas would be likely to be the closest match (see Fig. 1b).
“In the eastern U.S., nearly all urban areas, including Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, will become most similar to contemporary climates located hundreds of kilometers to the south and southwest,” the study says.
The study’s results echo earlier work that reached similar conclusions.
The Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment published in 2009 showed the climate of entire states shifting south. For example, depending on the emissions scenario, eastern Pennsylvania’s climate was projected to migrate toward between central Virginia and south Georgia by late in the 21st century.
If Washington is expected to be more like Arkansas, Georgia or Mississippi later this century, where will it feel more like Washington?
Move to Providence or New York City if you prefer Washington’s current climate.
Ian Livingston contributed to this report.