Last month was coldest February in US since 1989

·7 min read

If you felt like last month's bitter cold was chillier than in previous years, that's because it was colder than normal in most places. New data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released last week marked February 2021 as record cold in comparison to previous years.

February 2021 was the coldest February for the United States in over 30 years, according to the NOAA report, and the coldest February for the entire globe since 2014. North America, Scandinavia and northern Asia were all significantly below average in temperature last month. Each of those regions measured temperatures at least 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit below average.

The central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, Australia and parts of the southern oceans were also notably colder during February 2021 in comparison to recent years.

But not all places experienced below-normal average temperatures. Eastern Canada, western, central, and southeastern Europe and southern and northeastern Asia were notably warmer than average last month.

(Photo/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Back-to-back Sudden-Stratospheric Warming events -- or warming of the air in the atmosphere at an altitude of about 4 miles up from the Earth's surface at the North Pole -- likely played a role in the exceptional cold during the month of February across the U.S., according to AccuWeather Meteorologist Tyler Roys. This type of warming event at the Arctic can cause wind patterns to change around the pole and can dislodge the polar vortex, a large storm that contains some of the most frigid air on Earth, southward -- and in this case, it directed cold across a large part of the lower 48 states.

A displacement of the polar vortex does not happen every year, Roys explained, adding, "If it does happen, it doesn't necessarily mean it is always going to impact the United States." Essentially, when the polar vortex is weakened or dislodged out of the North Pole, a displacement of some of the coldest air from the Arctic can spill into other regions -- and different weather patterns play a role in helping to dictate where that cold will head.

This winter, the polar vortex shifted from its typical residence up in the North Pole twice. The first move occurred around the beginning of the new year and brought cold air into far eastern Europe, western Russia and historic cold to parts of eastern China, including the capital city of Beijing.

The second disruption of the polar vortex occurred around the tail end of January, so effects were felt into February. Canada and the central U.S. were hit with the cold air, as were western Russia, central Europe, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.

Vehicles maneuver along a snow-covered Fuller-Wiser Street in Euless, Texas, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

"The difference between the first and the second [polar vortex events] is that the first was a total displacement of the polar vortex to one side of the hemisphere, while the second one was more likely a split," he said.

Despite last month being the coldest February globally since 2014, it was still pretty warm in the grand scheme of things.

February ended up being simultaneously the coldest since 2014 and the 16th-warmest February on record globally. That means despite being colder than any February in recent years, last month was still overall much warmer than an average February.

In the Northern Hemisphere, last month ended up being the 14th-warmest February on record. The Southern Hemisphere was also warmer than average despite being cooler than in recent years.

The global surface temperature was 1.17 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th-century average. In 142 years of NOAA record keeping, February 2021 boasted the 16th-highest temperature departure for the month of February, meaning it was the 16th-warmest February on record globally.

The temperature departure -- meaning the difference between normal temperature and actual temperature -- in February for the Northern Hemisphere ended up being 1.51 F higher than average. The Southern Hemisphere's temperature departure was 0.81 F above average. It was the smallest temperature departure since 2012 and the 19th-warmest February for the hemisphere on record.

"It goes to show just how warm it has been in February globally over the last six years," Roys said.

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Despite a more frigid February than recent years, the winter season was still warmer than average across the globe, as both December and January had above-average temperatures. Only Russia experienced an overall colder winter than usual this year.

Residents across the southern U.S. were also hit with a historic deep freeze that reached far south into Texas and caused widespread power outages and left millions without electricity.

Last month, Texas experienced the coldest air since December 1989 and NOAA said in the report that some cities, including Austin and Waco, "broke records for the longest streak of below-freezing temperatures."

Subfreezing temperatures were recorded in Waco for a seven-day stretch from Feb. 11 through Feb. 18, according to the National Weather Service. At Camp Mabry in Austin, the temperature stayed below freezing for four days in a row from Feb. 13 through Feb. 16.

In Texas, officials blamed at least 57 fatalities on the outbreak of winter weather -- a number that is still being assessed and could go up. "The majority of storm-related deaths verified to this point were associated with hypothermia," the Texas Department of State Health Services said Monday in a statement to AccuWeather. "There have also been multiple deaths caused by motor vehicle accident, carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, falls and fire." AccuWeather estimated that total damages from the winter storms across the Southern states in February could approach $155 billion.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon stands on his kitchen counter to warm his feet over his gas stove Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in Austin, Texas. Power was out for thousands of central Texas residents after temperatures dropped into the single digits when a snowstorm hit the area Sunday night. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

February was the 11th-coldest on record for Texas, but other states experienced an unusual chill as well. Last month placed in the top 10 coldest months of February for Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

According to NOAA, the deep freeze in Texas was one of several weather events in the U.S. that contributed to a historically cold month for the nation as a whole.

A chill that spread over Alaska also contributed to the overall colder month for the U.S., as the state experienced its coldest February in 22 years. The temperature at Anchorage, the state's biggest city, didn't even climb above 30 F during the entire month -- which also became the first month to record subfreezing high temperatures every day since December 1998.

When all of the numbers for February were tabulated, the NOAA report pointed out, "The average contiguous U.S. temperature was 30.6°F, 3.2°F below the 20th-century average. This ranked as the 19th-coldest February in the 127-year period of record and was the coldest February since 1989. The winter (December-February) average contiguous U.S. temperature was 33.6°F, 1.4°F above average, ranking in the warmest third of the winter record."

North America as a whole experienced its coldest February since 1994.

Luckily, for those longing for spring, Roys said the cold weather will not continue as a trend this month for either the U.S. or the globe overall. He said people can squarely blame the polar vortex for the bitter cold that was endured throughout the U.S. last month.

If the polar vortex hadn't sent a mass of Arctic air plunging deep into the southern U.S. during February, bringing record cold to parts of Texas and snow all the way to beaches along the Gulf coast, Roys said, "We probably would have been talking about another top-five warm February."

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