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The 2003-2004 winter season produced bouts of extreme winter weather, but overall, the December-February season will go down in the record books as near average for the nation, according to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) in Asheville, N.C.
The eastern United States was colder than normal, while warmer-than-average conditions affected much of the rest of the country, but no state was much warmer nor much colder than average for the season. There were periods of unusually heavy rain and snow in parts of the country, and above-average precipitation helped alleviate drought in some parts of the West, but precipitation was near average for the contiguous U.S. The global surface temperature was much warmer than the long-term mean for the December-February season.
NOAA scientists report that the average temperature for the contiguous United States for the December-February winter season (based on preliminary data) was 33.7° F (0.9° C). This was 0.7° F (0.4° C) above average, the 42nd warmest winter since nationwide records began in 1895. Ten states from Mississippi to Massachusetts were colder than average, while 13 states from Michigan to New Mexico and Montana were warmer than average. Nine of the past 10 winters have been warmer than the long-term mean for the contiguous United States. Although Alaska’s statewide average December-February temperature was 0.6° F (0.3° C) above average, it was the coldest winter in five years for the state as a whole.
The same upper level wind pattern that contributed to more normal seasonal averages in Alaska was also responsible for extremely cold January temperatures in the Northeast. Daily low temperature records were established in many locations during the coldest time of the year, and January 2004 was the 11th coldest on record for the Northeast. However, temperatures during December and February were warmer than average throughout the region and statewide temperatures for the season as a whole were closer to normal.
Overall, precipitation for the contiguous United States was near average during the December to February season, but periods of unusually heavy snow and ice storms affected many regions of the country. More than 100 inches (254 cm) of snow fell in Oswego County, New York, in January alone, thanks to a series of lake effect snow events. One such event dropped more than 4 feet (1.2 m) of snow over a large part of the county.
Heavy snowfall in late January and early February in the Northern Plains led to the greatest February snowfall depth (26 inches) on record in Omaha, Neb., and heavy snow and winds over 70 mph produced snow drifts up to 20 feet (6 m) high in northwestern North Dakota in mid-February. Severe winter weather also affected areas of the South. A severe January ice storm in the Carolinas resulted in week-long power outages in remote areas of South Carolina, and more than a foot (30 cm) of snow fell throughout much of the Piedmont of North and South Carolina in late February.
Winter precipitation in the western U.S. helped alleviate drought in some areas. At its most recent peak in fall 2003, moderate-to-extreme drought had affected 80 percent* of the West, but the affected areas fell to nearly 50 percent* of the region by the end of February. Although most reservoirs remained below average due to four to five years of warmer and drier-than-normal conditions in many parts of the region, this winter’s precipitation resulted in average-to-above-average mountain snowpack levels in much of the Pacific Northwest and Intermountain West at the end of February. However, snowpack was below average in large areas of the Southwest and Rockies, and the most severe long-term drought impacts at the end of February were located in areas of the Southwest and parts of the Northern Rockies, especially southern Idaho and southwestern Montana.
*This statistic is based on a widely used measure of drought, the Palmer Drought Index.
Since 1900, annual global surface temperatures have risen at a rate of 1.0° F (0.6° C)/century, with some of the largest increases in the higher latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. The boreal winter temperature was more than 5° F (3° C) above average throughout much of western and central Asia as well as parts of Canada. Much of Europe and southern Australia also were warmer than average. Below- average temperatures occurred in northern Australia, where three tropical cyclones made landfall during the austral summer season.
The global ocean surface temperature was the second warmest on record for the three-month period, and temperatures in much of the eastern equatorial Pacific were near average at the end of February as the neutral phase of ENSO (El Niño/Southern Oscillation) continued.
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to Editors: A digital version of the press release including
links to data, graphics and analysis, in addition to further national
and global data are online at: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/research/2004/feb/feb04.html