A fleeting but intense pocket of frigid air crashed south over the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic midweek, toppling long-standing cold records and delivering a killing frost to many places where the growing season was already underway. Parts of New England even reported low-elevation snow amid the late-season visit from Old Man Winter.
On Tuesday, a strong cold front surged south across the Great Lakes, dropping the temperature by 20 degrees in 20 minutes in Milwaukee.
The chilly weather then progressed into the eastern United States, with temperatures falling low enough to set dozens of record lows Thursday morning.
Weather forecast models highlight continued odds of below-average temperatures for at least the next week, and possibly into the end of May before warmer weather becomes more firmly established.
Record-setting low temperatures in the Northeast
On Thursday morning, record-setting low temperatures stretched from Ohio and Michigan to the East Coast, with the core of the cold over the interior Northeast.
The temperature dipped to 17 degrees in Saranac Lake, N.Y., crushing the previous record daily low of 24 degrees, set back in 1983. That also marked the coldest reading ever observed so late in the year, surpassing the low of 16 degrees on May 13, 2005. Mercer County Airport in Trenton, N.J., fell to 37 degrees, breaking the old record of 38 degrees set in 2003.
In Vermont, Burlington tied a record at 29 degrees and Montpelier fell to a record of 25. Lebanon, N.H., dipped to 23 degrees, beating out a record of 27. The previous records at all three stations stood since 1983. Kennedy and Poughkeepsie, N.Y., tied records at 42 and 30 degrees, respectively. Glens Falls broke its previous record by 3 degrees, making it down to 25.
Pennsylvania experienced a slew of records, too, including in Allentown (32 degrees), Williamsport (31 degrees), Scranton (30 degrees) and Mount Pocono (26 degrees). According to Ben Reppert, a meteorologist and lecturer at Penn State, it was the third-latest freeze on record in Allentown, and the fifth-latest at Williamsport and Scranton.
Closer to the coast in southern New England, Bridgeport, Conn., fell to a record of 38 degrees. Islip on Long Island also hit 38, tying a record, and Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn., tied a record, too, at 31 degrees.
Hartford (KBDL) reached a low of 31° this morning, tying for the second-latest low of 31° or colder on record with 1984 pic.twitter.com/lTKC8wPzid— Maxar | WeatherDesk (@Maxar_Weather) May 18, 2023
The average last freeze in Hartford is April 25; the latest on record was May 20, 2002, meaning the city was just two days away from matching a record for the latest freezing low recorded.
Providence, R.I., nearly froze at 33 degrees, beating out a record also from 1985. Boston didn’t quite snag a record, but its morning low of 44 degrees early Thursday was 15 degrees below the average low of 59.
The cold even broke records in the Midwest and around the Great Lakes. Akron, Ohio, hit 32 degrees, tying a record. Records were also challenged in eastern Michigan. And in Upstate New York near the Finger Lakes, some long-standing impressive records were matched.
According to Jacob Feuerstein, a meteorologist and recent graduate of Cornell, Thursday morning’s 26-degree reading in Ithaca, N.Y., tied with 1983 for the latest reading so cold so late in the season.
“[It’s] unusual to see such an impressive cold record these days,” he wrote.
Snowflakes were even spotted in South Burlington, Vt., on Wednesday, of exceptional rarity for this time of year.
Snowing outside the TV station in South Burlington – very uncommon to see snowflakes in the Champlain Valley on May 17th ❄️ @MattMyNBC5 @NWSBurlington #Vermont #vtwx pic.twitter.com/tSjPxPyRQe— Ben Frechette (@benfrechettewx) May 17, 2023
Fortunately for winter-weary New Englanders, the cold is relenting, and moderating temperatures, albeit still slightly below average, are expected over the next week.
While the cold is moderating, it’s impressive for two reasons: One, the temperature differences from normal were large, with many areas falling some 15 to 20 degrees or more below historical averages. But more noteworthy is the fact that, in a warming world, cold records — which are increasingly difficult to achieve amid background warming — managed to be broken.
That said, the occurrence of a cold air outbreak in no way diminishes the legitimacy of ongoing warming affecting many of the same areas that experienced records.
Over the last year, there have been over 77,000 warm weather records set in the United States, compared to just over 44,000 cold records.
Simply stated, weather is random, and cold air outbreaks will continue. But, as temperatures continue to rise because of human-caused climate change, warm weather records will increasingly outnumber cold weather records.