Feb 28, 2024 - Energy & Environment

"Insane": Historic winter heat wave smashes records across U.S.

Map showing the surge of warmth and cold air behind it on Feb. 27, 2024. Image: Pivotal Weather.

Map showing the surge of record warm air (red) and cold air (blue/purple) behind it on Feb. 27, 2024. Image: Pivotal Weather

The modern winter climate history of the Central U.S. was rewritten this week, as more than 130 monthly high temperature records were set from Texas to Michigan.

Why it matters: The historic winter heat wave illustrates how extreme day to day weather can act in concert with climate change to set new milestones.

Driving the news: The heat began to build Monday, when more than 70 temperature records were toppled, many of them monthly milestones.

  • For example, Omaha (80°F), Des Moines (78°F), Minneapolis (65°F) and Abilene, Texas (94°F), saw their hottest winter temperatures on Monday.
  • Warm, humid air surged from Texas to Wisconsin Monday into Tuesday, toppling all-time February highs, such as 72°F in Milwaukee and 70°F in Madison.

The big picture: An amplified and powerful jet stream featuring a deep dip, or trough, in the West and ridge in the East helped to propel a warm air mass from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes beginning Monday.

  • This warm air felled city and state records for February and in some cases, all of the meteorological winter months (December, January and February).
  • The records didn't just fall. They were shattered by several degrees, despite the fact that monthly and all-time milestones are typically set only by fractions of a degree.
  • On the eastern side of the jet stream, warm, humid air surged northward. Behind it lurked an Arctic air mass, causing weather whiplash of extreme proportions, with temperatures crashing by more than 50°F Tuesday into Wednesday.

By the numbers: In Springfield, Ill., the high on Tuesday reached 80°F, while Detroit, Flint and Saginaw, Mich. had their hottest winter days on record Tuesday, with a high of 73°F.

  • In St. Louis, the high on Tuesday was 86°F, and in Kenosha, Wis., the high of 77°F may have set a state record high for the month of February (as did other locations on Tuesday).
  • Chicago saw a high of 74°F on Tuesday followed by a round of tornado-producing thunderstorms.
  • Temperatures reached 40°F above average for this time of year, bringing highs into the 100s°F in Texas and fueling massive wildfires, while also felling records in Mexico and Canada.

What they're saying: "Nothing like this had ever happened," weather records tracker Maximiliano Herrera said on X, noting the record-shattering event felled state high temperature records for February in six states during the course of just two days.

  • "Most extreme event in North American history," Herrera said.
  • Veteran Weather Channel meteorologist Jim Cantore noted on X that 132 cities and towns set monthly records, calling the feat "insane."

Threat level: The winter heat wave has ties to the jet stream's setup, the El Niño climate phenomena in the tropical Pacific Ocean and human-caused climate change.

Map showing the Climate Central Climate Shift Index for Feb. 27, 2024.
Climate Central's Climate Shift Index for Feb. 27, 2024. Image: Climate Central
  • According to Climate Central's Climate Shift Index, which measures how climate change is skewing the odds of a particular day's temperatures, shows that in multiple states, climate change made Feb. 27's high temperatures at least three times more likely.
  • This was especially the case in Wisconsin, Michigan, Oklahoma and Nebraska, with many other states showing at least a doubling of the odds for such record high temperatures.

What's next: More record warmth is on tap for the East Coast on Wednesday along with the threat of severe thunderstorms, before colder air temporarily takes over.

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