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January Global Average Temperature Third Warmest on Record

NOAA image of national and global data.February 21, 2003 — The first two months of the winter saw average to below average temperatures in the East, and unusual warmth in the western United States, according to NOAA scientists. Near record dryness occurred in January following a much wetter-than-average December for the contiguous United States. The global average surface temperature was the third warmest on record for January. (Click NOAA image to view national and global data.)

NOAA scientists from the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., report that the average temperature for the contiguous United States in January (based on preliminary data) was 32.9 degrees F (0.5 degrees C), which was 2.0 degrees F above the 1895-2002 mean, but well below the record warm January of 1953 when the average temperature was 37.3 degrees F (2.9 degrees C). Conditions in the East contrasted sharply with those in the West. High pressure over the western United States and an atmospheric flow pattern that brought arctic air into the eastern United States resulted in below average temperatures in the East and record or near-record warmth in the West. Although the contrast was not as great, a similar pattern of temperatures occurred in December, with a nationally averaged temperature of 2.3 degrees F above the long-term average.

The Southwest and West regions of the country had their warmest January on record while January was the second warmest on record in the Northwest Region. On a statewide basis, Nevada and Utah had their warmest January on record, and statewide average temperatures were second warmest in California, Oregon and Arizona. The statewide January temperature for Alaska was 6.7 degrees F (3.7 degrees C) above the 1971-2000 average.

In the East, snow and ice storms accompanied the cold temperatures in some areas. From 4 to 12 inches (10-30 cm) of snow fell across North Carolina on January 23, leaving 3 to 4 foot (90 - 120 cm) high snow drifts on the Outer Banks. The state was affected by a severe ice storm the previous month that left well over one million people without electricity. Heavy snows also fell in parts of the Northeast, where Syracuse, N.Y., had more than 100 inches (254 cm) of seasonal snowfall by the end of January. Syracuse normally receives 112 inches (285 cm) of snow each year. The average temperature for the December-January two-month period in the Northeast was 2.5 degrees F (1.4 degrees C) below the long-term average. These temperatures contrasted sharply with the previous winter, which was the warmest on record for the region.

December 2002 was the ninth wettest December on record for the contiguous United States, but extremely dry conditions followed as 2003 began, and January was the second driest such month since 1895. The most anomalously dry region for the two-month period stretched from Colorado to Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. The warmth and lack of snowfall in the upper Midwest adversely affected winter recreation and entertainment including winter festivals, snowmobiling and skiing. In January, 39 states were significantly drier than average with Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida and Minnesota having their driest January on record. Eighteen other states were much drier than average, and the only states with significantly above average precipitation were Washington and Idaho.

The combination of below average precipitation and anomalous warmth in the western United States, which followed several years of below average precipitation and drought, led to persistent or worsening drought conditions throughout much of the region. Moderate to extreme drought covered 75 percent of the western United States at the end of January, based on the Palmer Drought Index*. The dry conditions have forced many ranchers to sell livestock because of the added expense and difficulty in obtaining feed, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Seasonal snow pack levels were also very low throughout much of the West, raising concerns about the prospects for even more widespread and severe drought in the summer of 2003.

The average global surface temperature for combined land and ocean surfaces during January 2003 (based on preliminary data) was 1.0 degree F (0.6 degrees C) above the 1880-2002 long-term mean, the third-warmest January since 1880 (the beginning of reliable instrumental records). The warmest January on record occurred in 2002, followed by 1998. Since 1900, global January surface temperatures have risen at a rate of 1.0 degree F/century (0.6 degrees C/century), but the rate has increased to approximately three times the century-scale trend since 1976.

Mature El Niño conditions continued in January, but there are indications that El Niño is weakening, according to the NOAA Climate Prediction Center. These indications include a decrease in sea-surface temperature anomalies of as much as 2.7 degrees F (1.5 degrees C) in the eastern equatorial Pacific.

Some of the most anomalously cold land surface temperatures during January occurred in Nepal, Bangladesh, and northern India, where a cold outbreak led to hundreds of deaths. This contrasts with temperatures across much of Canada and parts of central Asia, where January mean temperatures were more than 9 degrees F (5 degrees C) above average. Daytime maximum temperatures exceeding 105 degrees F (40 degrees C) were common in southeastern Australia in late January, the middle of the summer season in this Southern Hemisphere country. The extremely warm temperatures and a continued lack of precipitation resulted in worsening drought conditions and widespread wildfires that destroyed more than 500 homes in Canberra alone.

The NOAA National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NOAA Satellite and Information Services) is the nation’s primary source of space-based and surface-based meteorological and climate data. NOAA Satellite and Information Services operates the nation's environmental satellites, which are used for weather forecasting, climate monitoring and other environmental applications such as fire detection, ozone monitoring and sea surface temperature measurements.

NOAA Satellite and Information Services also operates three data centers, which house global databases in climatology, oceanography, solid earth geophysics, marine geology and geophysics, solar-terrestrial physics, and paleoclimatology.

*The Palmer Drought Index uses numerical values derived from weather and climate data to classify moisture conditions throughout the contiguous United States and includes drought categories on a scale from mild to moderate, severe and extreme.

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of the nation’s coastal and marine resources. NOAA is part of the U. S. Department of Commerce.

Relevant Web Sites
Climate of 2003 — January in Historical Perspective

NOAA Drought Information Center

Media Contact:
Patricia Viets, NOAA Satellite and Information Services, (301) 457-5005