Quit Your Whining—For the U.S., January Wasn’t That Cold

The East may be freezing, but above-average temperatures throughout the West made this January just about normal

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Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

At least someone is enjoying the winter

I should be in Florida. I was supposed to fly to Miami from New York this morning to report a magazine story, but my flight, along with more than 12,000 others, was cancelled thanks to the massive winter storm currently ravaging the East Coast. So instead I wound up staying home, helping my injured girlfriend wade through the snow to the doctor’s office, struggling through the latest storm in the winter that will never end. That comes on top of days of freezing cold temperatures in New York this month and in January, weather that made walking an act of extreme courage. And it’s not just New York: cities from Boston to Atlanta to Chicago have experienced the deep freeze of 2014. Surely this winter must rank with the harshest the country has ever experienced.

Surely not. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released January climate data for the U.S. today, and it turns out that the average temperatures for the month were just slightly below normal. How much below normal? Just 0.1º F (0.056º C) below the 20th century average for the month. That puts January 2014—the month of the much vaunted polar vortex—right in the middle historically, making it the 53rd coldest January over the past 120 years.

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If that seems hard for shivering East Coasters and Midwesterners to accept, it’s due in part to the fact that while the East froze—average temperatures in the Northeast were 4.1º F (2.3º C) below normal—the West was unusually warm throughout January. California and Alaska had their third-warmest January on record, with Alaska temperatures an incredible 14.8º F (8.2º C) above the average, its warmest January since 1985. That helped balance out the unusually cold January for states like Alabama, Indiana and Tennessee. The same wobbly jet stream that brought ice-cold Arctic air to the East also allowed warmer tropical air to blanket the West. It’s notable that no state experienced its coldest January on record, despite the constant headlines. While the U.S. media may have an East Coast bias, climate data does not.

But it wasn’t just the media that played up the polar vortex. Americans east of the Rockies really felt the winter this January—and that’s because, for the first time in a while, we actually experienced a winter. Years of warmer than normal Januarys have made us soft. Thirty years ago, this January would have been considered utterly normal, as Justin Gillis pointed out this week in the New York Times:

The meteorologists Brandt Maxwell, of the National Weather Service in San Diego, and Robert Henson, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., have been doing some comparisons.

In the winter of 1976-77, they point out, the temperature in Chicago stayed below freezing for 43 days straight, and in 1985 the city had a below-freezing stretch of 40 days. The longest stretch so far this winter was 11 days. Similarly, New York’s longest stretch below freezing this year has been six days, less than half as long as the freezing periods in the 1970s.
This isn’t to argue that the snow and cold hasn’t had a real impact on Americans, from the way ice storms have scrambled the transportation network to the sudden shortage of propane for heating. But this winter doesn’t rank historically. If it feels that way, it’s because Americans are experiencing a “shifting baseline” on winter. As the cold months have gotten warmer and warmer—and they have—our idea of what’s normal in January has changed as well. So when we get weather that conforms to what actually used to be normal, it feels like we’ve been caught in a polar vortex, even on those occasions when we haven’t. In fact, the biggest climate story for January isn’t even the temperature, it’s the growing drought that’s gripped much of the West, including California, which had its third-driest January ever. Eventually the weather will warm up across the country and winter really will end—but this drought could go on and on.