Editor’s note: Stephen is a life-long Houstonian and avid weather-geek. He grew up fascinated with the wild Houston weather and loves writing about the processes that create it and its impacts on the area. You can find him on twitter @stephenuzick He will be providing occasional weather coverage for the site.
By STEPHEN UZICK
February 28th marked the end of what is considered meteorological winter (December 1st – February 28th), but based on the weather we have seen for the past few months it’s hard to argue winter ever began. Winter of 2016/2017 will go down in the record books as the warmest winter Houston has ever recorded. For any winter-lover the season was downright depressing with numerous records broken at the three major recording stations in the area. Here is a look at some of the crazy numbers our area put up over the past three months and a brief explanation of what the heck was going on.
Galveston led the way in terms of daily temperature records. Between Nov. 1 and Feb. 28, Galveston broke a daily high temperature record a staggering 31 times, with all time monthly high temperature records being set in November, December, and January. In just one season the Island experienced an entire month’s worth of record breaking days. Absolutely incredible.
Moving a bit further inland Houston’s two main weather recording stations, Bush Intercontinental Airport and Hobby Airport, were also setting records during the December thru February period. During that time at Hobby high temperatures ran six degrees above average and lows came in at seven degrees above average. Although those numbers may seem small, over the course of a three month period an average departure from normal of six to seven degrees is huge. To put it in terms of what one could really feel, Hobby had 25 days where the temperature hit at least 80 degrees going back to Dec. 1. Additionally, since Dec. 1 daily high temperature records have been broken at Hobby 12 times.
At Bush, the story has been largely the same. During the December thru February period temperatures the big airport ran 6 degrees above normal for both highs and lows. Similarly to Hobby, Bush made it to at least 80 degrees 23 times since December 1st, shattering the old record of 17 such days for a December thru February period. On top of that daily high temperature records have been broken at Bush 10 times since Dec. 1.
So why has it been so warm this winter? The root of the issue lies near the North Pole. The arctic has seen abnormally warm temperatures this year (warmth is relative, it is still very cold there by our Texas standards). This anomalous warmth has caused the polar jet stream to shift in peculiar ways. These shifts have brought record cold and snow to Siberia and northern Europe/Asia, but has largely prevented serious cold air from spilling to our side of the globe. Fewer big cold snaps over North America this year translated to less snow cover to our north. As an example of the sheer absurdity of what happened this winter the National Weather Service office in Chicago stated that for the first time in 146 years of records the city did not record snow on the ground in January or February. Having a healthy layer of snow on the ground to our north helps to essentially refrigerate the air behind cold fronts, keeping it from warming up too much by the time it reaches our part of the world. Thus without the snow pack the cold fronts that have come through Houston this year just haven’t had much oomph. Furthermore, the lack of cold air reaching our region this year has kept the water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico above normal which has only reinforced the warmth around the region.
Does a record warm winter mean the upcoming spring and summer are going to be even more oppressive than usual? I would say not necessarily. The fact that the Gulf has been warmer than normal may actually increase the chances of us having a stormier spring and summer, which would keep temperatures closer to where they are supposed to be. Long range forecasting is difficult even for the seasoned professionals so there is always the chance the heat could continue, but my bet would be on temperatures moving back towards the normal range as we transition into spring and summer.