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The Most Extreme Winter Month Ever Observed in New England?

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The now infamous 'slurpee waves' of Nantucket - nearly frozen after a historically cold month. Photo Courtesy: Jonathan Nimerfroh.

Is hyperbole a problem in the world of weather? You bet your frozen face it is. But there's no doubt a case can be built to support February 2015 as the most extreme winter month observed over a large portion of New England. Granted our weather records only date back 100-140 years, depending on the site. In the large scheme of things, it's a climatological eye-blink. So we won't pretend it's the snowiest EVER or the coldest EVER (major pet peeve of mine)...just observed. And so the bottom line is that no one alive, or even those recently before us, have had to go through a month as cold and snowy as this one.


Let's start with the snow. While we've started measuring storms in inches instead of feet as of late, February posted a monster number. We smashed the previous snowiest month on record by nearly 2 whole feet. Three separate storms produced over a foot of snow in Boston - a feat never observed before in a single month. Snow depth records were set in numerous locations as it piled up over 3 feet deep. Snowflakes fell on 19 out of 28 days in the Boston area. And we're on the cusp of breaking the record for the snowiest all-time season. You won't find many claiming that the snow this month wasn't anything short of superlative. Many have written or called in to say they've never seen ice dams, icicles, or snow piles like they have this year.


Even though the biggest departures from a 'typical' winter have been here in Southern New England, most of the Northeast is seeing well above average snowfall. Maine has seen many of the same storms that we've endured around here. Places like Bangor and Eastport have been blowing away records left and right, including a jaw-dropping 132.5" over 5 weeks. Several cities have made it into the century club (we're coming for you, Buffalo). Even the comparatively paltry 28" in NYC is above average for the season.


Snow is one thing, but persistent cold can claim equal rarity and acclaim this month. Friday brought yet another record - longest stretch ever observed without hitting 40F in Boston. We're at 39 days and counting...and we'll add at least a few more before that one ends (thinking it may stop Wednesday PM). Earlier in the month we reached the 2nd longest streak without hitting freezing (15 days, 1 day shy of the record). And every single day this month has been below average except one - Sunday the 22nd. It was a measly 1 degree above average for the date. I mean... c'mon.


Sidebar: Worcester should nab its coldest month, but Boston will fall short of 1934. I think this is a bit of an unfair shake, because the observation site moved in 1936 to Logan Airport, For all intents and purposes, this is a terrible place for a climate site because it does not represent where most people live. It's warmer in the winter, and cooler in the spring/summer. If the climate site was still in the city as it was in 1934, I think we would be in the top spot. The night time lows this month have been much higher at Logan because it's extremely tough to get the winds to go calm at a site that's basically in the middle of the water. There's always a thermal gradient there (think our coldest nights, where it's -15 in Waltham but the water temp is 30 in the Harbor. Some wind is going to flow between those points). The coldest temps often come on calm nights when the cold air settles to the surface and there's no mixing of the atmosphere (we call that decoupling). I guarantee you that on nights when it was 5 at Logan, it was -2 on the Common inside the city. Over the course of a month, that makes a huge difference. In any case, what we can say is its the coldest month recorded since measurements have been taken at Logan, and only the 2nd month to finish with an average temp in the 10s.


When you put it all together it's not just cold here, but all over the Northeast and Great Lakes. Even Cleveland will set the mark for coldest February ever recorded! It's been nearly 16F below average in February in Cleveland...that's a ridiculous level of cold. Bangor is set to blow away its coldest month ever recorded by ~2F. That doesn't sound like a lot, but when you're talking averages over a long period of beat an all-time mark like that is incredible. Montpelier, Rochester, Buffalo, Hartford, Worcester, Islip, Bridgeport, Portland, etc will all see their coldest February's, most of them their coldest overall month. Caribou, ME hasn't hit freezing all month - the first time that's happened since 1993. Syracuse set the mark for its longest streak without hitting freezing - the city hasn't topped it for the entire month either. They'll obliterate their all-time coldest month by THREE degrees.


The point of this exercise isn't to make you more depressed about this historically miserable month, but to point out how extreme and unusual it actually was. It's not just your run of the mill winter fatigue setting in. We've lived through a level of cold and snow that hasn't been touched in well over a hundred years. Won't be many complaints if we wait another 100 to do it again.

Even more striking is not just the cold and snow of this year, but the extremes we've seen over several  years. Winter 2013-14 was a bit of an appetizer for this one, although it was certainly harsh enough. But then we turn the clock  back to 2012...and remember what we were seeing? One of the most surreal months I have ever witnessed in weather. I'll never forget how warm March of 2012 was, and how nighttime lows were beating daytime record highs across a gigantic portion of the country. Temps topped 60F for 11 days in Boston, and topped 70F for 7 of them! Snow only measured 7.7" that winter (climatological) season.

In the course of just 3 years, parts of New England will have seen their warmest, coldest, and snowiest cold season months ever recorded. The 2011-2012 winter produced the 3rd least snowy season on record, too. Talk about weather whiplash.

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