Ecocentric

January Hasn’t Been As Cold As You Think

Many Americans may be freezing now, but the data shows January hasn't been that frigid

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Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Commuters were freezing in New York this morning, but on average, January hasn't been that bad

January 2014 will go down as the month we all learned about the polar vortex (even if meteorologists have known about it for decades). It’s the month when it got so cold that Minnesota closed all schools for the first time since 1997, when much of the Midwest was more frigid than the North Pole, when even Tampa experienced temperatures below freezing. As I write, much of the eastern half of the country is suffering through another bitter cold snap—not caused by the vortex, FYI—one that has blanked the East Coast in heavy snow. Winter, in short, has felt miserable.

But here’s the surprise: on a historical and national level, it hasn’t actually been all that cold. With data from Weather Underground, I calculated the average high daily temperature from Jan. 1 through Jan. 22 for the 10 largest cities in the U.S. The results make this winter look surprisingly average:

Jan. 2014 Average High                Historical Average High
New York:         38 F (3.3 C)          36 F (2.2 C)
Los Angeles:     76 F (24.4 C)        68 F (20 C)
Chicago:            27 F (-2.7 C)          32 F (0 C)
Houston:          64 F (17.8 C)          63 F (17.2 C)
Philadelphia:   40 F (4.4 C)           41 F (5 C)
Phoenix:           73 F (22. 8 C)         67 F (19.4 C)
San Antonio:   66 F (18.9 C)           63 F (17.2 C)
San Diego:        72 F (22.2 C)          65 F (18.3 C)
Dallas:               58 F (14.4 C)           57 F (13.9 C)
San Jose:          66 F (18.9 C)           58 F (14.4 C)

(MORE: Snowpocalypse or Not, 2013 Was One of the Warmest Years on Record)

What do we learn from this? Well for one thing, there’s an East Coast bias in news coverage, at least of the weather. But while it truly has been historically cold on average for much of the Midwest, for most of the rest of the country the average temperatures have been around normal, or even a little above. And the West Coast is experiencing an unusually hot winter (one that has compounded the record drought in California). Average high temperatures have been further above normal in Los Angeles and San Jose than they’ve been below average in Chicago. Anchorage has been positively balmy—by Alaskan standards—with average daily highs that are 11 F (6.1 C) greater than the historical average for January.

So why has this month felt so unusually cold for so many Americans? Probably because it has been—at least compared to recent history. An Associated Press analysis found that from 1900 on, cold extremes happened about once every four years. But when the average temperature in the U.S. dropped below 18 F on Jan. 6, it was the first time the country had been that cold on average in 17 years. And that day was only the 55th coldest day in recorded U.S. history, much warmer than the 12 F average recorded on Christmas Eve 1983.

The climate has been changing, but so have we, adjusting to what you might call a new normal. It’s an example of “shifting baselines,” a term first coined by the fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly. Once a New York City January when high temperatures were 38 F on average would have seemed on the warmish side. But as the climate has changed—and it has, with winters in New York State more than 1 F warmer on average now than in 1970—so have our perceptions of what’s normal. So when we get a winter that would have been pretty average four decades ago, it feels like a deep freeze.

And who knows, by 2100—when average temperatures in the U.S. might be as much as 11 F higher if nothing is done to slow greenhouse gas emissions—our descendants might even get a freak January in New York when average temperatures actually fall below 40 F. And they’ll call it a cold snap.

(MORE: Why Dwindling Snow — Thanks Largely to Climate Change — Might Dry Out Los Angeles)

40 comments
4TimesAYear
4TimesAYear

Sorry, but even the historical average doesn't mean a whole lot. The big question is, what's it supposed to be - and who gets to determine that? 

A few other observations: 

One thing we can learn from history is that anything goes. The same date last year isn't even the same day this year. I would also like to see the sites where the weather stations that the temps are measured are in the same place, type of instrument used for measuring temps, siting issues (if any), etc. It would also only take one unusually warm day to throw the whole thing out of whack.

lostcat
lostcat

I'm live in upstate NY and surprise surprise, even LIBERALS FEEL COLD!

This author chose New York City to represent the HUGE state of New York even though it is THE southernmost part of the state. 2013-1014 winter started with below average temps in OCT (and a freak snowstorm) and is going strong with tonight's (March 15th) night-time temp forecast to be 15 degrees F. This is not a normal winter- this is a monstrously horrible, bank breaking winter for people who must pay oil and gas bills to stay warm. The fact that this author lives in California which had a record warm winter ( then cries about a few inches of rain) discredits him.

brucrew96
brucrew96

I actually glanced at the authors name, and for a second I thought it read "brainwash".


JoeMoore
JoeMoore

I did notice that all of the hot spots are large cities.  I ride a motorcycle and can always tell when am getting close to a large city.  When you have such a large collection of people, roads, big building and big equipment you will find heat.  The reason they set record highs is the population increases each year.  Check the increase in Detroit and now the present day.  I live outside of Louisville and always see at least 5 degrees lower temperature. Will these increased city temperature due to population increase the state average?     

JonMosher
JonMosher

Senior Editor of Time is a drama troll? The examples are hand picked to come up with the authors wanted result. He only picked two cities in the north from a list of ten, he also just used 12 days of the entire winter to come up with his lie. Go blog for the enquirer. Wow, how far we've fallen.

DennisDY
DennisDY

Let's talk about actual LOW temperatures in New York City during January 2014  vs. the historical average Low temperatures. It makes little sense to talk about average highs when speaking about how cold it was. During the month the actual low temperature was higher than the historical low on only 10 days. These days ended up with low temperatures an average of 8.1 degrees higher than normal. The actual low, however, was lower than the historical low for 20 days. For these 20 days the actual low was (on average) 12 degrees colder than the historical average


January was therefore significantly colder than usual.

rbbr
rbbr

It's funny, your name is so similar to Brain Wash! Avg. US temps broke a century old record!


P_salmon
P_salmon

Data also shows for all US Historical Climate Network stations, 2014 is the 4th coldest October to Feb (9) since the late 1890s.  Still balmy and classy in San Diego though.

CptWayne
CptWayne

This analysis is flawed.  This is the overall coldest in the last 30 years. Picking cities to base this article on is silly.  Try the same analysis using countryside temps and see what you get.

Sure, it was colder years ago, but we are now talking about recent memory, not 50 or 70 years ago.

Sustained cold, even when not colder, can sap energy supplies and create more misery. This is what we are now dealing with, degree days boys, not a thin slice of time using a broken thermometer.

RobertPinardi
RobertPinardi

Now I Know where AL GORE got this crap.  AGAIN.. the GLobal warmers Point to Weather..NOT CLIMATE. Climate is measured over a period of 30 years. If you use climate we are Cooling..Not warming. As we head out of the solar cyxle its going to get even colder.  

JohnSwallow
JohnSwallow

Bryan Walsh said: "What do we learn from this? Well for one thing, there’s an East Coast bias in news coverage, at least of the weather." and this comes in the middle of a totally biased and inaccurate report that should have never seen the light of day. A foreign publication seems to be more honest than "Time" in reporting what is happening in the US;

"Matt Rogers, president of Commodity Weather Group LLC, said: 'The crazy thing is that the current cold snap this week look to be a bit more modest in the face of next week's outbreak. 

'The cold coming for the end of January is sufficient to make this the coldest month of the century so far and the coldest the Lower 48 has felt in the last 20 years.'"

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2545153/U-S-braces-coldest-month-century.html

Bryan Walsh, for some reason, was shamed into reporting something that verged on the truth when he said this: "But when the average temperature in the U.S. dropped below 18 F on Jan. 6, it was the first time the country had been that cold on average in 17 years" and one must ask, why the song and dance about a small portion of the US, California?  This fits  in nicely when the truth is applied:

"UK MET OFFICE: GLOBAL TEMPERATURE STANDSTILL CONTINUES" Date: 24/01/14

 http://www.thegwpf.org/uk-met-office-global-temperature-standstill-continues/

mikephilly
mikephilly

I just took the averages for Philadelphia using data on the weather channel.  I get an average high of 37 for the first 26 days and if the forecast for the rest of the month is accurate we will have an average high of 36 -- 5 degrees colder than usual. Also so far the average low is 20.6 degrees and if the forecast plays out it will be only 20 degrees, 4 degrees below average.  I think that is pretty cold.

GlennCookinham
GlennCookinham

There's a high pressure system off the coast of CA, and it has been there for along time.  The person that wrote this article cherry picked the cities, so they would show above average temperatures.  South Dakota has two days in a row, where we didn't even make it above zero.  -15 tonight.  

amlnlover100
amlnlover100

I disagree and believe that the modal values are the most telling.

WesTilson
WesTilson

Good thing you cherry picked the few cities a couple degrees above average on Jan 22, these next two sub-zero cold blasts to finish out the month could make it the coldest January in history in a lot of places. Houston TX is getting snow and ice now, here in Charleston SC all of our palm trees are dying from the cold, Arctic ice caps are up 60% and will probably make up for years of slow decline in one frigid year.  GIVE IT UP, STOP REVISING DOWN PAST TEMPERATURE READINGS trying to get a desired warming result (as PROVEN with climate-gate) so you can artificially bolster the windpower industry.  Find another way to reduce pollution, I'd be for it, but stop spreading lies about global warming.  Thanks

LindaFinchKrukowski
LindaFinchKrukowski

I don't know about you but I can't feel the difference in 1 degree- unless it is the degree between 33 and 32 and I've just fallen on the ice that was not there a degree ago. 

ZacDeg
ZacDeg

Thanks for Cherry picking cities outside the masses in the Northeast, Midwest, and Mid Atlantic. Also adding up numbers before the third of the month with the lowest temperatures in decades. Have to get this article in before a good dataset disproves your wishes. The only hot air is the AGW crowds charts, which now run actual global temperatures below 0 emissions using model predictions going back 20 years. That means its cooler now than if man had quit burning fossil fuels according to your religions theory.   

jan3sobieski
jan3sobieski

I'm not sure what to think about this article. I'm not a proponent of global warming, nor am I against it. If you go here though:


http://www.crh.noaa.gov/lot/?n=CHI_winter_temps


It shows average Chicago winter temperatures since 1872. If you put it in a graph, you get this:


http://imgur.com/2VF7cAX


Now, what this shows is that the average temperatures varied up and down for over 100 years. It doesn't prove this winter is colder than others but it certainly makes you question the global warming theory to begin with. Had the graph looked more like this:


http://imgur.com/QxVlhmG


It would maybe convince folks more. But it doesn't look like that at all.

RyanStoots
RyanStoots

Notice these AGW folks make lots of predictions that turn out to be completely wrong? Yeeeeah......

P_salmon
P_salmon

Looks like you're trying to make the case that the temperature is average, but all we hear is that these are the hottest decades on record.  I don't get it.    I did notice out of 10 cities in your graphic you picked 3 in CA, 3 in TX, plus Phoenix, so I do get that. 

MoFoley
MoFoley

This is a case when you ought to look at the median, not the average. Due to strong outliers (specifically the several days where it was in the 40s) an average doesn't mean much. Hire an analyst, your numbers mean very little!

CharlesDaisy
CharlesDaisy

Bryan - I guess if you finally admit that the whole global warming issue in simply a political hysteria, you wouldn't have a job.

doriangrey_grey
doriangrey_grey

Bryan Walsh is a global warming true believer, and an imbecile.

RexRiver
RexRiver

Out of 41638 days in the last 114 years. Jan 6th was only the 55th Coldest, and it wasn't that bad? 100's are dead, 1000's endured severe frost bite. 1000's of NEW Record lows were recorded. Heating Bills are at all time record high. With more RECORD cold on the way with daytime highs of -10f to -20f shattering 100 year old records again...Who you gonna call? This writer who's an AGW loser, who still believes Al Gores statement that by 2013 the Arctic will be Ice free. For the RECORD Alaska is ALWAYS Warm with above normal temps, when the CONUS is experiencing below normal temps. It's been that way for 1000's of years...

Char982
Char982

I think using only the high temperatures gives a pretty inaccurate description of what the weather was like. Even if the weather reached a high temp, it may not have lasted very long. If you're really trying to prove that the cold was not that cold, why not use the low temperatures?

ericsapel
ericsapel

10 cities hardly make up a good sample to represent the entire lower 48 states.  the eastern 2/3 of the country has seen frigid temperatures in December and January, with much more cold on the way (cold that could rival the January 5-8 cold snap).  I understand your need to scramble to divert attention away from the fact that our winter's (aside from 2011/12) have recently been trending colder and snowier, really I do.  Especially since we have been told that our children will hardly know what snow is in a "warming" world, and that our winters can be expected to get increasingly warmer as we "pump more C02 into the atmosphere."  This is irresponsible journalism really.

AnswerIsFusion
AnswerIsFusion

Solid analysis. I bow at your massive knowledge and experience.  


However, I'll wait until the AMO flips to full on cold signal to make my final decision.

JillianNicoleWilms
JillianNicoleWilms

Choosing the ten largest cities in the U.S., especially when that means you're literally using six different states to represent fifty is a really poor litmus test to say how cold it's been. Also, using less than a month's worth of data as 'proof' that it hasn't been that cold this winter seems like a bit of a stretch. In addition, in your search you should have noted that the historical average changes from day to day, and that at least for places like philly, 13 out of 23 days have been below, in some cases wellll below the historical average for that specific day.

HaroldAmbler
HaroldAmbler

A curious moment to declare January temps less than cold, given that one of the most intense and enduring cold snaps the country has seen in decades is starting now. 


Presumably Mr. Walsh will revisit his analysis on February 1? In the meantime, if anyone needs a good book about climate cycles and where this moment really is contextually in terms of weather and climate history, I suggest my "Don't Sell Your Coat," still the only book by an American to examine the forthcoming grand solar minimum and any attendant climate impacts. 

DianneErrettJackson
DianneErrettJackson

The author needs to study geography. All of the southern cities he used are almost always warm. He should have used the 10 largest cities north of Macon, Ga, and east of the Mississippi River, and this story might make sense. He may be right about a media bias toward the East, just as the media has a bias in favor of the Democratic Party. It is cold in the East this winter. I do not think there is any doubt about this. Burr!

DanHB
DanHB

If you notice, 9 of the 10 cities are outside the area most affected by the cold, Arctic air.  Check out the analysis using 350 NOAA weather stations:

http://www.drroyspencer.com/2014/02/u-s-decjan-temperatures-3rd-coldest-in-30-years/

The article appears to have a West Coast bias, because the U.S. as a whole was 2 degrees colder over the past 2 months.  Of course, this comes on top of Bryan's article about November being cold, so that makes three consecutive months.  I liked his last line, that temperatures could be 11 F higher by 2100.  They could also be 11F lower.  Neither of these scenarios has a snowball's chance of occurring, but they could. lol.

MoFoley
MoFoley

@Char982 This is why a single number means very little out of context. A box plot would have given us all the information we'd need to draw a conclusion. Chicago had several days in the 40s, which brings up the average, whereas if we removed those outlying days, the average would be much lower. People give much too much stock in averages/means. Means are only useful with their accompanying confidence intervals. I think if this analysis included confidence intervals we'd see that even if the mean is not much lower than normal, the CI would be quite large, demonstrating the depth of the cold we're experiencing. 

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@DianneErrettJackson

I believe he pointed out that the media bias is ALREADY centered on the East Coast - at least insofar as weather this winter is concerned.  But what the hell does that have to do with anything?  Cherry-picking your data to reflect a different reality isn't science.  It's propaganda or nonsense, depending on how it's used.  Your methodology for establishing a national average temperature is not only wildly inappropriate, it is inaccurate.

The POINT, which you obviously missed, is that on average, across the country (you know, taking all the places in the country and not just here and there in select locations) this January is a bit warmer than normal, despite the record lows.

The author merely used a few places as examples which highlight how this seeming contradiction in the face of "OMG it's COLD!", "Attack of the Killer Polar Vortex" headlines we've seen in the news lately happens to be.   The media is biased toward east coast weather because a balmy January in most other places isn't nearly as compelling as people crawling for miles with broken legs through snow to reach safety.  You're cold.  That's called weather.  Most of the rest of the country, on average, isn't as cold as normal.  That's called a climatic trend as a data point which affects the direction climate change is going.

I mean, if you want to gather the data from the NWS or NOAA, compile it, average it and look up the national averages, great!  Go for it!  Never mind that it's been done for you, you need to know this stuff for yourself.

Just remember how to add and calculate an average.

On the other hand, you could try applying a little critical thinking to to your observation, realize you missed the point entirely, admit you didn't bother to read the article carefully enough and go back to school for some English comprehension classes.

jsmith19741
jsmith19741

@MoFoley@Char982 What about the depth of the warmth much of the country experienced during the week of January 10-17. With the exception of the Midwest, much of the nation was 10-20 degrees above normal for that week. How quickly we forget! I'm not sure why people think a few days of abnormal temperatures, warm or cold, proves or disproves the theory of global warming.  

esapp18
esapp18

@DeweySayenoff wow all that analysis and you still can't actually analyze data properly. 


You see the difference for Chicago ( the only NORTHERN MIDWESTERN city on his scale )??!!! You ever see the map for the polar vortex??? Yeah, it never hit California which makes up 30% of his data. LOL


The storm is just hitting New York again ( weather moves east to west ), Chicago got hit bad today. So, you will see the average temperature move downward over the next couple of days.


Sorry to ruin your "Go Global Warming" parade...

jsmith19741
jsmith19741

@esapp18 Like the author, you're basing your opinion of climate change on three weeks of weather. Just suppose June 2014 ends up being a very hot month across the country. Would it be logical to say, based on one month's data, that the earth is experiencing global warming? Of course it wouldn't! You have to look at the entire picture through time to get a realistic assessment.

I think this statement reveals a much more accurate picture than micro analyzing the weather in a given week or in specific locations.


November 2013 marked the 345th consecutive month with an above-average global temperature.

esapp18
esapp18

@ThomasMacso @esapp18 Obviously, It was a typo..since I was saying the weather is in Chicago and moving to New York....so, nothing else? Thanks for your great comment...