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For First Time in 20 Years, Cold Records May Beat Warm

With a large chunk of the U.S. having endured one of the coldest Thanksgiving holidays in years and even more brutally cold weather in the forecast over the next few days, 2013 is poised to have daily record lows outnumber daily record highs for the first time in 20 years.

That’s a stark reversal from last year — the warmest year on record in the U.S. — when record daily highs dwarfed record lows by a staggering 4-to-1 ratio. It’s also a stark reminder of the vagaries of short-term natural variability set against the backdrop of long-term global warming.

Mean temperature anomaly forecast (degrees Celsius) for Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013. The blue and green areas show cooler than average temperatures, while the orange and red shading indicates warmer than average conditions.
Click image to enlarge. Credit:

According to statistics from the National Climatic Data Center, the U.S. had 9,023 daily record high temperatures through Dec. 1, compared to 9,932 daily record lows. About 1,000 cold temperature records were set or tied during the last week alone.

Meanwhile, last year at this time, that ratio stood at about 5-to-1 in favor of record daily highs, with 32,232 record daily highs through Dec. 1, 2012, compared to just 6,234 record daily lows during that same period.

So far this year, warm temperature records overall, which includes record warm overnight low temperatures, are running slightly behind cold temperature records, with 24,084 warm temperature records set or tied compared to 24,957 cold temperature records.

That means that December will be a crucial month for determining if lows outpace highs for the year. The last time daily record lows outnumbered daily record highs in the U.S. was in 1993. The Arctic air mass moving south from Canada, which is set to send temperatures plunging from Seattle to Texas by the end of this week, tilts the odds in favor of cold temperature records prevailing.

Even with the cold snap in the U.S., the world has continued to see above-average temperatures overall, with 2013 expected to wind up among the top 10 warmest on record. The last month to have global average surface temperatures below the 20th century average occurred in February of 1985.

While that would run counter to the trend that has been observed during the past several decades, which is thought to be due in large part to manmade global warming, it’s not surprising. Much as the stock market has short-term fluctuations amid long-term trends, it is to be expected that in individual years, temperature records will buck the long-term trend. What is remarkable is that it’s taken this long for it to happen.

While 2013 is unusual in the context of the past two decades, periods of relatively cold weather — including Arctic outbreaks — are still to be expected in a warming world, studies show.

As the climate has warmed during the past several decades, there has been a growing imbalance between record daily high temperatures in the contiguous U.S. and record daily lows. A study published in 2009 found that rather than a 1-to-1 ratio — as would be expected if the climate were not warming — the ratio has been closer to 2-to-1 in favor of warm temperature records during the past decade (2000-2009). That finding cannot be explained by natural climate variability alone, the study found, and is instead consistent with global warming.

The study used computer models to project how the records ratios might shift in future decades as the amount of greenhouse gases in the air continues to increase. The results showed that the ratio of daily record highs to daily record lows in the lower 48 states could soar to 20-to-1 by mid-century, and 50-to-1 by 2100.

Probability of at least 8 inches of snow falling within 72 hours.
Credit: National Weather Service.

During the next two weeks, temperatures are projected to be 15 to 25°F below average throughout the Northwest, West, and Upper Midwest, according to multiple computer models as well as the latest climate outlooks from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

During the early part of this week, the Arctic surge will be accompanied by strong winds and areas of heavy snow for the Cascades, Bitterroot and Teton Mountains, as well as parts of the Rockies, Wasatch, and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. Some areas are likely to receive 12 to 18 inches of snow.

Eventually, heavy snow is forecast to spread into parts of the Northern Plains and Upper Mississippi Valley, as frigid temperatures take hold of about two-thirds of the lower 48 states.

Some of the coldest air will affect Montana, where low temperatures are expected to dip well below zero by the end of the week, with dangerous wind chills approaching 40°F below zero. The National Weather Service forecast office in Missoula described the coming chill as a “horrendously cold air mass” that will bring the coldest temperatures in at least 2 years.

Record temperatures recently set or tied in the U.S. 
Click image to enlarge. Credit: NOAA/NCDC.

The cold air will also affect major metro areas along the West Coast, from Seattle southward to San Francisco. In Seattle, snow flurries were possible Monday evening, and high temperatures may not get above freezing for much of the week. In California’s Central Valley, lows may drop to 20°F.

In Denver, which is more accustomed to wintry weather, snow and high winds are expected to accompany the bitter cold. The city is unlikely to set a record for the coldest high temperature for the month, which was minus-8°F, set in 1983, but daily temperature records could be threatened. Denver’s average high for December is 41.8°F.

Residents of Colorado’s Front Range are expecting an extended period in which temperatures do not rise above 15°F, after enduring a potentially damaging windstorm on Monday night into Tuesday morning as the Arctic air moves in. The National Weather Service said wind gusts of up to 75 mph, which qualifies as hurricane force wind gusts, are possible.  

The large dip in the jet stream responsible for the cold air outbreak will initially allow milder-than-average conditions to envelop the East Coast, but there too, cold air will eventually win out, starting late in the week, according to the latest forecasts.

Extended forecasts for the rest of December show an increased likelihood of continued below-average temperatures across large portions of the Upper Midwest and Western U.S., which would help to further add to the imbalance between record cold and record warm temperatures. Even if warming occurs after mid-month, temperatures would have to hit record highs across a large swath of the U.S. to have any chance of catching up to cold temperatures’ lead.

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By Patricia Shannon (Norcross, GA 30071)
on December 2nd, 2013

Is this at least partly a result of the weakening of the winds around the arctic, due to warming, letting cold air to come south more often?

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By Bryan Bates (Burlington Ontario Canada L7M 1N4)
on December 2nd, 2013

I see that no cares and have no idea what climate change is. I have listen to all that knows something all about climate change and hear it is, the climate is change to make it hotter and colder. The wind is changing and the jet stream is changing. What this means is that places that are very warm are cooling down and colder spots are getting warmer. This means all the food crops are in danger of getting colder and will not able to grow food and the warmer areas don’t grow because they are very dried up and the plants can’t grow without water. With your support we can end this madness. My name is Bryan Bates and I am on Facebook.

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By Eric Peterson (Front Royal, VA 22630)
on December 2nd, 2013

“While that would run counter to the trend that has been observed during the past several decades, which is thought to be due in large part to manmade global warming, it’s not surprising”

You should mention that the other factor affecting high records, particularly record high minimum temperatures is urban heat islands and station siting problems.  As you are aware, the US and global average temperature calculations are based on a somewhat limited set of stations with corrections made for urbanization, namely homogenization. So even though the US average includes increasingly urbanized stations like Norfolk, VA, see link here they correct for that problem (for better or worse) when calculating the overall average and trend in that average.

But when it comes time to count up record temperatures, there is no adjustment made.  Thus a station like DC’s national airport sited over about 400 square feet of gravel (in violation of thermometer siting standards, see pictures linked above) can rather easily have new record high minimums in summer as the gravel releases the prior day’s heat.

The bottom line is it is definitely worth mentioning that the high / low ratio of records is increasing due to global warming from increased CO2 but also due to local warming unrelated to the increased CO2.

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By Andrew
on December 3rd, 2013

Patricia - Good question. At this point, it is unclear if this is partly a result of Arctic warming, which some scientists think is influencing the polar vortex and jet stream in the northern midlatitudes.

However, you can bet that more research will emerge on this subject in the near future.

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By william (chicago, IL )
on December 3rd, 2013

Its not surprising that there have been increasing numbers of record highs. The placement of the devices to record temperature are poorly placed. typically in urban settings near to surfaces that influence the temperature upward or even located in airports or nearby HVAC devices. You only have to review the information put together by A. Watts to get an understanding of this poor placement.

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By John (Chicago, IL 60193)
on December 3rd, 2013

So how many years of no warming will it take for you to realize the models are simply wrong.  AGW contributes a very small amount to climate change.  17 years and counting.  Maybe after 20 you will give it a rest once and for all.

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By Len Conly (Berkeley/CA/94706)
on December 3rd, 2013

I urge you to change the headline to read:

“For First Time in 20 Years, Cold Records IN U.S. May Beat Warm.”


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By Mike Robinson
on December 3rd, 2013

I think we all know by now:

1.  Warming proves we are warming
2.  Cooling proves we are warming
3.  Stable temperatures proves we are warming

Does that about cover things?

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By Patricia Shannon (Norcross, GA 30071)
on December 3rd, 2013

Warming in the arctic is causing a weakening of the winds that circle it, allowing more instances of the mass intrusions of cold air southward in the U.S., such as this.

Note that it has already been shown that it is not the case that warming has not stopped. Oceans have been warming faster than thought. Areas not well measured, such as the arctic and antarctic, have been found to be warming more than thought.

Also, we are in a part of the climate cycle which usually causes cooler temperatures. Even if it were true that the temperature had not changed for a few years, this would be consistent with continued warming. Otherwise the earth would be cooling.

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By cken (fairview tn 37062)
on December 3rd, 2013

Statistical climate reviews, what are they good for - absolutely nothing.  That about covers the whole man-made global warming scam.  Lest i forget we should include the fabricated computer models predicting our demise by such and such a year.  Let’s be realistic there is nothing any person, society, or government(s) can do which will have any meaningful effect on climate change.

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By Shane (Boise)
on December 3rd, 2013

I think we can go in and “adjust” the temperature data as James Hansen has done in the past and “fix” all those record low temps. We could have it run a close second to the warmest year ever. After all, the temp data has been “adjusted” permanently by James Hansen so that we can show warming. We can always “fix” the data to support the warming trend I guess. And of course, if you don’t believe in warming, well you are just one of those people.

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By JohnB (Rockhampton)
on December 4th, 2013

Good thing they renamed it from “global warming” then isn’t it…gotta keep people frightened.

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By kermit
on December 6th, 2013

Eric, no, the heat island effect has been looked at and is trivial. You can learn about them in this paper:

NASA has taken steps to take this into account, described here:

Here’s a detailed but lay discussion:

Mike, no, that’s a misrepresentation.
The overall heat is increasing, and it is doing so because of the greenhouse gases we humans have released. This article, for instance, discusses the cooling temps *in the US*. It mentions quite clearly that it is much warmer elsewhere. The heat is going into the atmosphere and the water. But the water cycle, ocean currents, and wind patterns shift, and are now shifting more strongly because of more energy available, and more unpredictably, partly because we are unaccustomed to the changes.

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By Dave (Victoria, B.C.)
on December 6th, 2013

Cold low records 100 years old are being broken. This coinciding with solar activity falling faster than any time during the past 10,000 years. Coincidence? Not too sure. I just know that if the sun went out greenhouse gases would be much help. Ice ages have come and gone independent of activity from man. Greenland had settlements that were abandoned when the earth suddenly grew a lot colder. I guess cows were farting less. The climate has never been stagnant and has always been in a state of change. To assume man no has replaced natural factors as the main driving force behind global temperatures is getting a wake up call. The sun I believe is showing us who’s boss. Don’t believe me - care to venture outside anyone?

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By David McCaig (Victoria,,B.C.)
on December 7th, 2013

If the arctic is heating up and sea ice is melting - where is all the cold air that’s shattering cold low records for places a few hundred years old coming from? My opinion is that after 20 years of continual heating there should not be enough cold air lying around to shatter record lows. Also, if the arctic is heating up, why isn’t the sea ice melting for more than 6 months of the year? Why is the freeze/thaw duration evenly split? In 2008 a mini ice age was predicted by solar scientists to begin in 2014. Time to bundle up.

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By Raymond Burns (chapmanville, west virginia- 25508)
on December 7th, 2013

Watching the weather from a farmers view, it appears to me that the United States no longer has the ability nor the knowledge or know how to produce enough food or water nor much more of anything else that can sustain this country. The overall population has grown government dependent until the government that can offer so many handouts to a vast portion of its population will soon be taking more away than what they have been handing out. Tempers will soon help bring the global warming to a level never seen before.

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By Eric Peterson (Front Royal, VA 22630)
on December 13th, 2013

“Eric, no, the heat island effect has been looked at and is trivial. You can learn about them in this paper:”

kermit, as Peterson states in the paper that you referred to: there is no significant impact from urbanization on the US average temperature once adjustments for things other than urbanization are made (e.g. time of day, etc).  IOW the US average is not affected.  In the GISS and all other terrestrial indexes, stations are homogenized to take care of warm and cold anomalies including the ones that Peterson carefully accounted for the one he believes to be a wash.  Or IOW, cold and warm biases balance out in the US average he studied.

The issue related to this article is whether warm and cold records balance out.  Records are not corrected for any potential errors or biases that Peterson corrected for especially siting.  When not corrected for siting, a record high minimum is bogus whereas Peterson corrected for things like that when looking at average temperatures.

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By Eric Peterson (Front Royal, VA 22630)
on December 13th, 2013

“...are now shifting more strongly because of more energy available…”

Kermit, see Held and Soden,

““In many popular, and in some scientific, discussions of global warming, it is implicitly assumed that the atmosphere will, in some sense, become more energetic as it warms. By the fundamental measure provided by the average vertical exchange of mass between the boundary layer and the free troposphere, the atmospheric circulation must, in fact, slow down.”“

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By Dave McCaig (Victoria, B.C.)
on December 26th, 2013

Hey Andrew, thanks for posting my comments. Hope you had a nice Christmas.

One last point, the ratio of warm record days to cold record days has been increasing since the 1970’s.During that time the ratio of cold to warm records went from 1:1 to the 4:1, ratio it is today, or was until this year. With each passing year of increased warming corresponding with an increase in ratio of warm to cold records, A natural variation would mean moving from 4:1 to 3:1,then over time from 8:1 to 6:1. etc. It was predicted in 2009 that by 2050 the record highs to lows would be 10:1. A natural variation at time would be 8:1 fro example. Each passing year makes cold record lows surpassing warm record highs in a single year seemingly more and more impossible, and only could happen over decades of temperature reversal. For it to happen in one year suggests something more than natural variation is at play.
Take care.

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By doopy (56701)
on January 5th, 2014

I woke up this morning and it was -25F below with a wind chill of -45F So I got up, started my car, went to church and then out for breakfast with my family, business as usual here in Minnesota. For us it is like this EVERY WINTER. Most winters it gets -35F below with a wind chill of -70F bellow and thats normal for northern Minnesota. So what is all the fuss!! I was born and raised in Minnesota and this is nothing new to me. So we get a little snow and some cold weather and everyone starts freaking out…Why??? This is just another day in minnesota for us. I live in the Northwest corner of the state, the COLDEST part of Minnesota and it just doesn’t bother us. We dress warm, plug in our cars and still live a normal day just like everyone else. So let the frigid cold and all the snow come, I’ll get out my “Arctic Cat Sled” and have a wonderful and fun day riding. Then go ice fishing on the lake later….Minnesotans are a tough and hardy people so bring it on!!!

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