January 2014: What Was Supposed To Be ‘Normal’ Was Anything BUT Normal

Weather Editor

To those who read my monthly meteorological mumblings, I ask you to reflect back to what the Climate Prediction Center was prognosticating over the last two months of 2013. Remember those predictions? November was to be ‘normal’ in precipitation and temperature … but it wasn’t. December was to be the same … ‘normal’ in precipitation and temperature. Another prediction … another swing and a miss. The CPC went to bat again at the end of 2013, saying that January 2014 was to be, wait for it … ‘normal’ in precipitation and temperature.

That being the case, prior to January of 2014, how many of you knew the meaning of the term ‘Polar Vortex?’ What was an obscure term relegated to weather geeks and Nanook of the North, seems to have become a household term in our neck of the woods. The CPC predictions for January 2014 were not just off, they were WAY off. It is almost easier to tell you how many records were not broken or threatened during the last month than the opposite. Those would be records for lack of snowfall and warmth … global, regional or local.

According to the monthly climatology report compiled by the staff of the National Weather Service Forecast Office in North Webster, Indiana (KIWX), “The harsh winter continued into January with very cold temperatures, dangerous wind chills and a lot of snow. January began cold with the second and third having average temperatures about 20 degrees below normal and low temperatures in the single digits to 10 below zero.” You may recall, that we also experienced a significant snow event over New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day that coincided with the cold.

“This was just a tease of what was about to come a few days later,” the report continued, and we became familiar with the term, ‘Polar Vortex’. “One of the coldest outbreaks in recent memory arrived on the sixth in the wake of one of the most memorable snowfalls. A strong storm system moved through the Ohio valley and dropped between 10 and 18 inches of snow on many locations across northern Indiana and northwest Ohio. This storm was accompanied by winds of 25 to 35 mph which created blowing and drifting snow and whiteout conditions in some areas. As the temperature fell below zero on the sixth, wind chills plummeted to around 40 below zero. Low temperatures dropped below zero for two consecutive nights between the sixth and seventh.”

A brief warm-up brought us out of the deep freeze between the 10th and 14th as temperatures warmed into the forties. More seasonable temperatures followed through the 20th before the Polar Vortex made an encore appearance in the region. Again accompanied by snow and high winds, low temperatures dropped below zero from the 21st through the 24th, and then tanked at 16 below zero on the 28th. Wind chills plummeted to near 35 below zero during this cold period. Wind chills of this level are not just ideal for home science experiments like making frozen bubbles and instant snow, they are ideal for severe frostbite, and potentially lethal consequences for both man and beast.

The average monthly temperature was 17.0 degrees…a whopping 7.9 degrees below normal which made for the tenth coldest January on record. There were ten days with temperatures dropping below zero. The warmest temperature was 45 on the 13th and the coldest was 16 below zero on the 28th. The coldest day of the month was January 28th with a high of 3 and a low of 16 below for an average temperature of 6 below zero…31 degrees below normal.

Before we go any further, we should ponder the significance of the zero and subzero temperature readings we have seen so far this winter. This is not some far-reaching theory with algorithms to make the head spin. These are simple, basic, unfiltered numbers that an elementary student can understand. The normal amount of days with zero and subzero temperatures for the ENTIRE winter season (not just a week or a month) in Fort Wayne is 6.5. Normally, Fort Wayne will see the thermometer drop to zero or below on 6.5 days out of an entire winter. Are we clear on that? Good, because so far this winter Fort Wayne has seen 11 zero or subzero days…and the winter of 2014 still has a long way to go. Folks in Defiance normally see 5.2 zero or subzero days, and they currently stand at 12. Dropping down south to Lima, they have seen 10 zero or subzero days as opposed to their normal 3.4. As the Polar Vortex continued to the south, it may not have brought zero or subzero temperatures with it, but it did indeed bring enough cold air to help turn Houston, Texas into a skating rink, bring measurable snowfall to places like New Orleans and the Florida Panhandle, and make I-75 in Atlanta into an immense parking lot.

Precipitation for the month of January was 2.59 inches, which was 0.33 inches above normal. This only ranks as the 31st wettest January on record. The greatest 24 hour precipitation was 0.84 inches on the fifth. Nobody with eyes to see and ears to hear the lamentations of their neighbors was surprised by the observations that January was a very snowy month. A record total of 30.3 inches of snow was recorded at the KFWA observation station in Fort Wayne…19.3 inches above normal. This not only ranked as the snowiest January on record, but is also the snowiest of ANY month on record. The greatest 24 hour snowfall total was on the fifth when 9.5 inches of snow fell in Fort Wayne, and the corresponding greatest snow depth of the month was a foot on the morning of the sixth.

The very cold air brought to us courtesy of the Polar Vortex is the reason that snowfall amounts were so high, despite only 2.59 inches of precipitation being measured. Cold air condenses moisture out of the air like a squeegee. While our surface temperatures were dipping below zero, the temperatures aloft were much, much colder, freeze-drying the air above us, and dropping the resulting product, more snow, on our weary heads. The efficiency of making the most snowfall out of the least amount of available moisture made the Polar Vortex the new superhero of kids everywhere. Horrific road conditions spelled frequent school closures throughout not just our area, but across the northern tier of the country. As the frigid air moved south, states like the Carolinas, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana that are ill-equipped to handle severe winter weather, all followed suit, giving their kids rare snow days.

Looking ahead to February puts me in an uncomfortable position that I find all too familiar. I recall sitting in as a substitute on the air at WBNO in the 1970s, and being forced to read the old ESSA (which in 1977 became the NOAA) weather forecast calling for a clear and sunny day in the area. After reading the forecast, I then read the tornado warning that had just been issued for Williams County, rendering the previously read forecast moot and completely irrelevant.

I hope that you can see the analogy in the previous predicament, as I report to you that on January 16, the CPC issued their forecast for the month of February where yet again they called for a month of normal precipitation and temperature levels. On January 31 though, they revised their prediction to say that our area stands a 50 percent chance of below normal temperatures, along with a 33 percent chance of above normal precipitation. At the same time I am telling you this, most of you are already aware of a significant snowmaker that is developing to our south. As it travels through Alabama and Georgia, it is predicted to grab Gulf air and fling it northward over our area. Upon impact with the bone-chilling cold air aloft, the squeegee effect will come into play, pulling moisture out of the air and sending it downward. Although the GFS (Global Forecast System) models show that the majority of precipitable water aloft will remain to our south, other models are showing a more northerly curve, and that curve could place us into as much as another foot of snow.

Check in with The Village Reporter on Facebook, where we will keep you up to date and current on the weather as we ramble through what appears to be yet another month of ‘anything BUT normal.’

Timothy Kays can be reached at tim@thevillagereporter.com


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