February 8, 2019

The Southeast Just Saw An Exceptionally Warm First Week Of February

This has been an exceptionally warm week for parts of the southern and eastern United States, where record highs fell on Thursday—some in resounding fashion—as daytime high temperatures climbed 30°F or more above normal in spots. The spring preview came to a dramatic end on Friday as a potent cold front returned temperatures to what they should feel like at the beginning of February.

It's something else to see such a stark contrast on a nationwide temperature map. That's about as sharp of a difference between north and south as you can get. The temperature on Thursday afternoon at 2100 UTC—which is 4:00 PM Eastern—was in the 80s across parts of the Carolinas and Georgia while northeastern Montana was mired in the -20s. Temperatures dropped as much as 40 degrees in the Mississippi River Valley when the cold front passed through.

Here's what that setup looks like in the upper levels:

Source: Tropical Tidbits

That upper-level trough is the force behind those bitterly cold temperatures in the north-central part of the United States. It made it up to a whopping -16°F on Thursday afternoon in Glasgow, Montana, while Rapid City, South Dakota, saw a balmy high of -1°F. While that high in Glasgow was a record low maximum (the lowest high temperature) for the date, there have been multiple days in February that didn't get out of the -20s since the station's records began in the late 1940s.

Farther south, that strong ridge over the southeastern states, along with warm, humid winds blowing some evaporated paradise straight from the Gulf and Caribbean, allowed temperatures to soar into record territory today, the climax of an exceptionally warm week for the beginning of February.

The temperature at the airport near my tiny North Carolina town hit 81°F on Thursday. The official co-op station down the street from me recorded 79°F, which was a record high for the date. In fact, if you include today's warmth, 11 of the 29 record highs for the month of February for the nearby observing station were recorded in 2017, 2018, or 2019.

Some more records across the Southeast:
  • Danville, VA, saw a high of 80°F, the second-warmest on record for February.
  • Greensboro, N.C., reached 79°F, beating the previous daily record of 73°F.
  • Raleigh, N.C., reached 79°F, beating the previous daily record of 76°F.
  • Charlotte, N.C., also reached 79°F (see a pattern?), 5°F higher than the old record.
  • Fayetteville, N.C., managed to get up to 81°F, also a daily record.
  • Wilmington, N.C., reached 83°F, tying February's second-highest temperature.
  • Columbia, S.C., hit 83°F, falling 1°F shy of tying the all-time record for February.
  • Charleston, S.C., set a daily high temperature record of 80°F today.
  • Greenville, S.C., saw 77°F today, 7°F higher than the previous daily record.
  • Augusta, GA, reached 85°F (!), the daily record and second-highest for February.
  • Macon, GA, saw a high of 81°F, two degrees higher than the previous daily record.
(Note: I compiled the highs from NOAA's obs pages and the records from xmACIS2.)

It's worth remembering that this is the first week of February—it wouldn't be too out of the ordinary to see temperatures like this on February 28, especially farther south, but that's three weeks from now. Three weeks is an eternity when it comes to the changing seasons.

This exceptional warm-up came directly on the heels of a piece of the much-ballyhooed polar vortex breaking off and slumping down over the Upper Midwest. Raw air temperatures dipped below -40°F for several days in Minnesota and Wisconsin, breaking some impressive records in many locations.

Above-normal temperatures will likely persist in the southeastern United States over the next two weeks, though not by nearly as much of an extreme as we saw this week.

It's malpractice to talk about the warmth without addressing climate change. With each winter cold snap comes an avalanche of climate change jokes.  Har har, climate change is a hoax because I threw a snowball in the Senate. We could use some of that global "waming" when it's this cold out! And on, and on.


When the temperature is 30°F above normal on February 7, though, the folks who make those jokes don't make a peep. Aside from the intellectual dishonesty involved, a large part of the silence in the face of abnormal warmth is the fact that we've grown so used to warmth that we hardly pay any mind to a day that's double-digits above average. We only seem to notice it when it's 80°F at the beginning of February and there are wasps flying around. Unusually cool days stick out like an especially sore thumb because they're getting outnumbered.

I wrote an article for Outside last week explaining how weather is not climate. Climate is the average of weather over a period of time. It can get bitterly cold for a week or two and we can still come in warmer-than-average on the whole. 2018 was the world's fourth-warmest year on record, coming in behind 2016, 2017, and 2015. 2018 was warmer-than-average in 41 of the 48 contiguous states, placed in the top-ten warmest years in 14 states, saw the most precipitation ever recorded in nine states, and saw lots of above-average low temperatures across the country, which is one of the hallmarks of climate change

It may be tempting to question climate change in the face of daytime temperatures far below zero in the northern Plains, but the world is much bigger than our backyards.

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I contribute to The Weather Network as a digital writer, and I've written for Forbes, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Popular Science, Mental Floss, and Gawker's The Vane. My latest book, The Skies Above, is now available. My first book, The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, arrived in October 2015.

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