City’s hottest Fe­bru­ary seals warm­est win­ter

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Marty Toohey mtoohey@states­man.com

Austin — and pos­si­bly all of Texas — just ex­pe­ri­enced the warm­est win­ter on record.

As the al­ready bloom­ing wild­flow­ers can at­test, this win­ter — which ended Tues­day, ac­cord­ing to the me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal cal­en­dar — was freak­ishly warm. More than one out of ev­ery four days this win­ter topped 80 de­grees at Austin-Bergstrom In­ter­na­tional Air­port. The av­er­age tem­per­a­ture at Austin’s weather sta­tion at Camp Mabry hit 58.7 de­grees, a full de­gree higher than the next-warm­est win­ter sea­son, the win­ter of 1999-2000.

In only one pre­vi­ous win­ter, that of 1989-90, were freez­ing tem­per­a­tures ban­ished ear­lier than this win­ter. The first 90-de­gree day came nearly two months ear­lier than av­er­age. The four tor­na­does that hit the Austin area overnight Feb. 19-20 were the kind of mini-dis­as­ter that usu­ally hits in

spring. And though no for

mal data on footwear was read­ily avail­able, anec­do­tal ev­i­dence sug­gests a sharp uptick in flip-flop use.

“We’ve just re­ally had no win­ter,” said Troy Kim­mel, a Univer­sity of Texas me­te­o­rol­o­gist and in­struc­tor. “We saw win­ter on the cal­en­dar, but we didn’t see it in real life.”

That was the story across much of Texas, par­tic­u­larly the south­ern and south­east­ern parts, which also saw record warmth. In to­tal,

about half the state ap­pears to have set records, as Texas as a whole might have, state cli m atol­o­gist John Nielsen-Gam­mon said.

“Right now, based on pre­lim­i­nary data, (this win­ter) is in a dead heat, so to speak, with 1907,” Nielsen-Gam­mon said.

He said the warm win­ter could re­sult in is­sues such as fruit trees hav­ing fewer cold days than usual to form buds, and plants bloom­ing so early as to be at risk dur­ing a hard freeze, should one un­ex­pect­edly ar­rive. But to those ter­ri­fied a warm win­ter could por­tend some- thing ter­ri­ble in a state that tends to de­liver scorch­ing sum­mers, Nielsen-Gam­mon of­fered some re­as­sur­ance.

“There’s very lit­tle cor­rela- tion,” he said, “be­tween win- ter tem­per­a­tures and sum­mer tem­per­a­tures.”

The bet­ter gauge of sum­mer tem­per­a­tures is spring rain­fall. A dry spring could ex­pose Texas to drought, height­ened wild­fire risk and a longer fire sea­son as sum­mer sets in. But as of now, sea­sonal fore­casts are giv­ing about even odds of higher or lower rain­fall than av­er­age, Nielsen-Gam­mon said. Elec­tric Re­li­a­bil­ity Coun­cil of Texas fore­caster Chris Cole­man said Wed­nes­day he ex­pects the above-nor­mal tem­per­a­tures to con­tinue, but to be ac­com­pa­nied by

above-nor­mal rain­fall. If a hot sum­mer is in the off­ing, Cen­tral Texas ap­proaches it in good shape. Lakes Travis and Buchanan, the re­gion’s main wa­ter sup­plies, are sparkling and full.

Austin is also in bet­ter shape be­cause of a wet­ter win­ter that pro­duced a ro­bust 8.76 inches of rain­fall at Camp Mabry, 2.12 inches

above nor­mal, ac­cord­ing to Lower Colorado River Au­thor­ity me­te­o­rol­o­gist Bob Rose.

The warmer win­ter isn’t proof of cli­mate change. But the win­ter tem­per­a­tures are in keep­ing with the long-term trend of Texas warm­ing since the 1970s, Nielsen-Gam­mon said. Since the ’70s, when Texas reached the end of sev­eral decades of cool­ing, the av­er­age tem­per­a­ture has risen about 2 de­grees. Since 1990, South Cen­tral Texas has gone through four years in which the av­er­age tem­per­a­ture was 4 de­grees or more above nor­mal, with only one year 4 de­grees or more be­low nor­mal, Nielsen-Gam­mon said.

Cli­mate sci­en­tists at the Univer­sity of Texas and Texas Tech Univer­sity couldn’t be reached Wed­nes­day for their as­sess­ment. But one, Texas Tech cli­ma­tol­o­gist Katharine Hay­hoe, has stud­ied Austin and con­cluded that the city is headed for more 100-plus-de­gree days and fewer freez­ing nights, ex­pos­ing the city “to drier condi- tions, par­tic­u­larly in sum­mer,” even with an­nual rain- fall to­tals not ex­pected to

change sig­nif­i­cantly. At Austin-Bergstrom In­ter- na­tional Air­port, the city’s other of­fi­cial weather sta­tion, this win­ter was offi- cially only the sec­ond-warm- est on record, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice. But Rose and Kim­mel

said the air­port’s his­tor­i­cal data are tricky be­cause the air­port kept its records slightly dif­fer­ently un­til the mid-1990s, when it be­came a civil­ian fa­cil­ity. The win­ter that is of­fi­cially warm­est

there, 1995-96, has 30 days of miss­ing data and should be dis­counted, Rose said — re­mov­ing any doubt thatthis win­ter was Austin’s warm­est.

The end of win­ter came with the first blue­bon­net sight­ings (although, astro­nom­i­cally speak­ing, spring doesn’t ar­rive un­til thev­er­nal equinox on March 20). The warm­est win­ter on record

also ended with the warm­est Fe­bru­ary on record at Camp Mabry. This year’s av­er­age Fe­bru­ary tem­per­a­ture was 64.5 de­grees — re­mem­ber, that’s the av­er­age tem­pera- ture across the en­tire day — which was more than 2 de­grees higher than the next-warm­est Fe­bru­ary in 1999. The av­er­age tem­per­a­ture was 9.1 de­grees higher than the month’s his­tor­i­cal

av­er­ageat Camp Mabry, adding im­me­di­acy to de­bates

about whether cargo shorts or golf shorts are best.

This was also the warm­est win­ter in many parts of Texas, in­clud­ing Hous­ton. That city fin­ished with 22 days above 80 de­grees, Hous­ton-based me­te­o­rol­o­gist Matt Lanza said.

Lanza Tweeted out a pic­ture of a tomb­stone ren­dered in the pix­e­lated style of the old “Ore­gon Trail” com­puter game. The tomb­stone bore the in­scrip­tion: “Here lies win­ter 2016-17, tried to ford

the at­mo­spheric river and lost.”

DEBORAH CANNON / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Aleks Ga­jdeczka holds her daugh­ter, Evie Wall­fisch, 3, in the wa­ter dur­ing the an­nual Barton Springs Po­lar Bear Splash at Barton Springs on New Year’s Day. Austin’s me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal win­ter, which wrapped up Tues­day, was the warm­est the city ever recorded.

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