How Cold Was It?

January 2014 in Western NC

written and compiled by RaysWeather.Com Meteorologists: Ray Russell, David Still, and Eric Anderson

Now that our cold January is over, the question becomes, “How did this month compare with other cold months?” The second question is, “What weather pattern produced such a cold month?” We’ll attempt to answer both questions.

In the analysis below, we selected stations representing each region from the Smokies to the northwest corner of NC using stations with many years of data. We chose both high elevation stations (Beech Mountain, and Mt Leconte), mid-elevations stations (Boone, Downtown Asheville, and Waynesville) and one Foothills station (Morganton). All temperatures are in Fahrenheit. Data was analyzed from National Weather Service Coop stations. Beech and Mt Leconte data goes back only to the 1990s; so, while we include this data to show how cold it was on mountaintops, these two stations do not provide a long-term climatological comparison.

The Weather Pattern

Much of the media has used the term “polar vortex” as if it’s a new, dangerous creation. In truth, the “polar vortex” or “polar low” always exists near the North (and South) Poles--the “polar vortex” is only news for people who don’t know about meteorology. Unfortunately the gist of media coverage has done more to confuse the subject than explain it--they were looking for a label rather than an explanation.

Here’s what we think is a better explanation of what happened in January:

The pattern was dominated by influences in the Pacific Ocean that brought Arctic attacks of unusual cold weather into the central and eastern United States. An anomalous region of warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures in the eastern North Pacific Ocean (south of the Aleutian Islands), dominated the downstream flow regime and produced a large, upper-level ridge of high pressure in the western United States. This large warm dome in the West promoted a strong trough (or dip) in the Jet Stream over the central/eastern part of the country. This opened the floodgates for frequent and extreme Arctic and Siberian air masses into our part of the world.

To see what we are talking about regarding warmer than normal sea surface temperatures in the North Pacific, see http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/psd/map/images/sst/sst.anom.month.gif. Subsequently, downstream, the polar vortex was strengthened and pulled farther south into eastern Canada. But that was one part of a chain of events, not THE cause.

The Cold Comparison

During the month, most weather stations with significant history (more than 50 years of data) set or tied 2-3 record lows for the date. January 7-9 and January 30-31 were the days when records were broken or tied. However, no station with more than 50 years of data got within 15 degrees


of its all time record low. For example, the all-time record low for Boone NC is -24; the coldest temperatures last month was -8.

The “big picture” story is illustrated in this one graph;

This graph basically says “January 2014 was about as cold as it can get”.

The uniqueness of this event was in the duration of the cold. The tables that follow tell the story, but here are some highlights. January 2014:

(Note again that Beech and Leconte data goes back only to the 1990s.)


10 Coldest January’s on Record (Average Temperature)

Boone

Beech

Leconte

Asheville

Waynesville

Morganton

Year

Avg Temp

Year

Avg Temp

Year

Avg Temp

Year

Avg Temp

Year

Avg Temp

Year

Avg Temp

1977

20.19

2003

20.34

2014

16.06

1977

25.58

1940

20.84

1977

29.26

1940

22.81

2014

21.26

2003

18.73

1978

29.53

1977

25.16

1940

30.50

2014

23.42

2010

22.37

1994

20.08

1970

29.82

1978

27.79

1918

31.51

1978

24.32

2011

22.50

2010

20.42

1985

30.00

2014

28.80

2014

31.79

1985

24.76

1994

22.52

2011

20.47

2014

31.20

1970

29.35

1985

32.48

1994

25.98

2009

24.84

2009

22.53

1981

31.85

1985

29.48

1978

32.61

1956

26.63

2001

25.45

1988

22.69

1966

31.92

1981

30.03

2010

33.85

1966

26.75

2004

25.66

2000

23.16

1958

32.16

2010

30.16

1912

34.13

2010

26.82

1996

25.81

2001

23.39

1948

32.37

1958

30.39

1982

34.35

1981

27.32

2008

25.84

1997

23.61

2010

32.58

1966

30.53

1905

34.42

10 Coldest January’s (Average High Temperature)

Boone

Beech

Leconte

Asheville

Waynesville

Morganton

1977

28.55

2003

29.00

2010

26.94

1977

34.42

1940

31.68

1977

39.45

1940

31.97

2011

29.10

2014

27.26

1978

38.84

1977

35.42

1918

41.28

1985

33.52

2010

29.23

1994

27.52

1985

39.00

1978

38.90

1940

41.94

1978

34.03

1994

29.97

2011

28.13

1970

39.45

1970

40.55

1978

42.06

2010

34.52

2014

31.83

2003

29.55

1966

40.19

2010

40.68

2014

43.97

1994

35.10

2009

32.45

1997

29.81

1958

40.65

1966

40.77

2010

44.29

2014

35.10

2000

33.13

2009

30.48

2010

40.77

1985

40.94

1994

44.97

1981

35.93

2008

33.55

2000

30.55

1948

41.13

1958

41.32

1912

45.00

1958

36.06

1997

33.58

1996

30.68

1981

41.55

2011

42.06

1985

45.06

*Asheville’s average temperature in January 2014 was 42.60 and did not rank in the top ten coldest.

10 Coldest January’s (Average Low Temperature)

Boone

Beech

Leconte

Asheville

Waynesville

Morganton

2014

11.74

2014

10.69

2014

4.85

1977

16.74

1940

10.00

1940

19.06

1977

11.84

2003

11.68

2003

7.90

2014

19.81

2014

14.57

1977

19.06

1940

13.65

1994

15.06

2011

12.81

1970

20.19

1977

14.90

2014

19.62

1978

14.61

2010

15.52

1994

12.90

1978

20.23

1981

16.39

1985

19.90

1956

16.00

2011

15.90

2010

13.90

1985

21.00

1978

16.68

1986

20.48

1985

16.00

2001

16.97

1988

14.10

1981

22.16

1986

17.77

1981

21.65

1994

16.87

2009

17.23

2009

14.58

1963

22.45

1985

18.03

1982

21.77

1966

17.23

1996

17.68

2008

14.87

1982

22.87

1970

18.16

1918

22.07

2003

18.00

2004

17.71

2004

15.16

2003

23.32

1958

19.45

1970

22.55

1979

18.03

2008

18.13

2000

15.77

1961

23.39

2010

19.65

1958

23.06

Top Ten Number of Days Below 10 Degrees in January

Boone

Beech

Leconte

Asheville

Waynesville

Morganton

1977

14

2003

16

2003

19

1893

9

1940

16

1985

7

2014

13

2010

13

2014

16

2014

8

1977

14

1982

6

1940

11

2014

13

2010

13

1977

7

1978

11

1940

5

1978

10

2001

13

1994

12

1970

6

2010

10

2014

5

1963

9

1994

11

2000

11

1959

5

2014

10

1970

4

1985

9

2011

10

2001

11

1963

5

1966

8

1977

4

2008

9

2004

10

2004

11

1994

4

1985

8

1981

4

2010

9

2000

9

2008

11

1978

4

1981

8

1963

4

1981

8

2007

8

2009

11

1981

4

2008

7

1988

3

1966

8

2009

8

2011

11

1982

4

1988

7

1994

3

Top Ten Number of Days Below 0 Degrees in January

Boone

Beech

Leconte

Asheville

Waynesville

Morganton

1994

6

2014

8

2014

12

1893

3

1940

7

1994

2

2014

6

2003

7

2003

11

1970

3

2014

6

1940

2

1977

5

2010

5

2010

8

1982

3

1970

4

1985

1

1970

5

1994

5

1988

6

1994

3

1977

4

1986

1

1936

4

2008

5

2008

6

1977

2

1966

3

1942

1

1978

3

1997

4

2000

6

1985

2

1981

3

1982

3

2000

4

2004

5

1963

1

1982

3

1985

3

2005

4

2009

5

1966

1

1936

3

1997

3

2009

2

1997

5

1972

1

1985

3

1966

3

2011

2

2005

4

2014

1

2000

2

Some Observations

  1. Note that January 2014 shows up relatively colder on the list of average lows than on the list of average highs. We have two explanations for that difference: 1) We had surprisingly little snow for how cold it was. Without the snow, solar radiation had a greater effect on daytime highs (compared to years with more snow when more solar radiation is reflected back out of the atmosphere). 2) There was no blocking in the North Atlantic. This allowed systems to progress through rapidly and gave us a few relatively mild days.
  2. Months with this level of cold are probably one-in-twenty-year events. You won’t have to deal with many of these in a lifetime in Western North Carolina.
  3. The fact that it was so cold has almost nothing to do with the discussion of Global Warming. “Weather is like news. Climate is like history.” Here’s an analogy… It is a well-known fact that the murder rate in New York City has declined significantly in the last twenty-five years. The murder rate today less than one-seventh of what it was in 1990. But there were still 334 people murdered in New York City last year. Both the trend and last year’s data are facts that co-exist somewhat independently of each other. The climate is a combination of what happens all over the globe over the course of many years; the weather we experience is bounded by place and time. So, a warming climate does not preclude specific cold weather events like January 2014 in the Eastern U. S. To see the bigger picture across the U. S. and Canada, the graphic below illustrates that while it was very cold here; it was very warm in Alaska.


What’s Coming Next?

February will be milder and wetter. Winter is not over. In fact, climatologically in Western North Carolina, January 31 is about half-time--about half our snow falls on or before January 31, and about half falls after.

Ray’s 2013-2014 Winter Fearless Forecast in October called for a slightly milder than normal winter. December was slightly warmer than normal. January was super-cold. So we are colder than normal half way through the season. Can we end this winter season with slightly above normal temperatures? At this point, it’s not impossible but it will be very difficult.

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