According to data the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released Monday, during the Feb. 11-16 period, more than 120 all-time cold temperature records were broken across the Central and Southern United States. Six states — Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas — registered one of their coldest 10 Februaries on record.
The month ranked as the 19th-coldest month of February since reliable instrument records began 127 years ago, NOAA found. Despite the cold February, the months of meteorological winter, consisting of December through February, were in the warmest one-third of past winters, at 1.4 degrees above average.
The cold in the United States, combined with unusually frigid air across much of Eurasia, resulted in global warmth less pronounced compared to recent Februaries, according to a separate report released by the Copernicus Climate Change Service, a program of the European Commission. Copernicus found that globally, February averaged about 0.46 degrees Fahrenheit (0.26 degrees Celsius) above the 1981-2010 average and still 2.2 degrees (1.2 degrees Celsius) above preindustrial levels, when averaged over the last 12 months.
The planet’s average temperature was cooler compared to other recent Februaries, but still well above average, in keeping with trends related to global warming from human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. The relatively cool start to 2021 is a likely indication that the year won’t set another record for the warmest year, as 2016 and 2020 did.
Interestingly, while Siberia and other parts of Russia and Europe, along with the U.S., were unusually cold, the Arctic was unusually mild for the month, Copernicus scientists reported.
The U.S. cold snap
The new temperature data backs up previous findings showing that while the cold and winter storms in the middle of the U.S. were severe, they were not unprecedented. In fact, Texas had its 11th-coldest February on record, missing a spot on the top 10 list.
A number of locations dropped to their coldest readings since December 1989, including Houston, which fell to 13 degrees on the morning of Feb. 16. The only time on record that Houston Intercontinental Airport has been colder was during the 1989 cold episode, when a low of 7 degrees was observed.
- Austin’s lowest temperature matched the mark set during 1989, with the mercury falling to 6 degrees during the height of the Arctic blast. You’d have to go back to Jan. 31, 1949 to find a colder temperature there, when the low was minus-5 near the city.
- In Dallas, temperatures during this year’s outbreak got down to minus-2, beating out the low of minus-1 set during the 1989 episode and narrowly missing the record of minus-3, set all the way back in 1930.
- Oklahoma City came close to an record as well, making it down to minus-14 — the coldest reading there since 1899. (It only got down to minus-8 during the 1989 outbreak.)
- Omaha, tied with 1989 in terms of its coldest low ever observed at Eppley Field, which fell to minus-23 on the Feb. 16. Records at Eppley date back to 1935.
- A number of nearby locations recorded slightly colder temperatures during that time frame. The longevity of the cold was especially noteworthy, with some places on the Plains seeing subzero lows for 10 days or more.
- Minneapolis, for example, had 12 consecutive nights with lows below zero, a streak that featured nine days that dipped to minus-10 or colder.
- Bismarck, N.D., had 15 days straight with nights plummeting below zero, including five that made it into the minus-20s.
- Both Waco and Austin set records for their longest streak of below-freezing temperatures, too. Waco spent more than eight days below 32 degrees.