ITHACA, N.Y. — Generally speaking, we haven’t had too many cold spells so far this winter. As we start to dig out of our climatological cold point of the year, this week will be more of the same, with light rain and snow and fairly mild temperatures for mid-February. There is, however, one exception – a roughly 1.5 day icy blast due to come in late Thursday into Friday that will serve as a brief reminder of what a rough winter feels like.
To demonstrate that lack of cold spells, here’s a look at the finalized January 2020 meteorological data. According to the Northeast Regional Climate Center, the average temperature was 29.0°F at their Game Farm Road weather station in Dryden, 5.7°F above normal. In the winter, monthly temperature averages tend to be more variable because of the bigger temperature gradient from the tropics to the poles – it just simply isn’t as changeable when the temperature during the summer is from 90°F near the equator to 40°F near the poles, vs. January when it’s still near 90°F at the equator, but it’s -25°F at the North Pole. January averages have ranged from 13.1°F in 1977, to 37.4°F in 1932.
That said, 29.0°F is very much on the warm side – in 121 years of valid records, it comes in at 16th place. So not scalding warm, but certainly mild for January, and the warmest January since 2006. Temperatures were similarly mild if not more so throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, with Boston reporting its 3rd warmest January on record, and Albany its 6th warmest January on record.
On the precipitation side, it was marginally wetter than usual at the Game Farm Road site, with 2.76″ of liquid-equivalent vs. the 2.08″ Ithaca has averaged over the years (with the snow, we tend to forget that January is the second-driest month of the year, with February’s 1.98″ average being the driest). However, much more of that fell as rain than snow, with only 10.9″ of the white stuff during January, vs. the average of 17.6″. We were about 4″ below normal for snowfall going into February, and Friday’s accumulations have wiped out that deficit.
Across the region, January was a mixed bag. The persistent jet stream ridge near the coast shunted storms northeastward from Ohio through Lake Ontario, with a few wet spots further away from the Great Lakes, and generally parched conditions in the I-95 Corridor and New England.
This week coming up follows much of the same pattern early on – while on the mild side, the prevailing storm track will be over the Southern Tier, so things will be unsettled, before a strengthening coastal storm late week drags in dry and frigid Arctic air. We’ll get to that in a minute.
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The skies are clouding over this Sunday late afternoon as the next system begins to move in. The low pressure system will be moving across the lower Great Lakes today and into the Southern Tier after midnight. It’s not a particularly strong storm, but it will tap into moisture from the Gulf of Mexico funneled northeastward by a slow-moving frontal boundary (a swath of land from Louisiana to North Carolina will see high flood risks this week, with 5″ or more of rain). The frontal boundary is blocked by the ridge of warm air to the east, while the storm system impacting us will ride over the top of the ridge and out of our area Monday. Shortly thereafter, a Canadian high builds in and pinches the frontal boundary between itself and the ridge, preventing the frontal trough and its moisture from building into the Southern Tier.
For tonight, expect an initial coating of wet snow starting around 9-10 PM. In Ithaca and most of Tompkins County, this should transition over to a cold rain by 1-2 AM as milder air builds in from the southwest, with temperatures rising from about 3232°F around midnight to the upper 30s by sunrise. On the hilltops and in areas northeast of Ithaca, this transition will be slower due to slightly colder air in place, so a quick inch or two of snow is possible. Generally speaking, the impacts from this system will be minor.
Monday will see some lingering rain showers during the morning as the low moves eastward, and it’ll dry out by otherwise remain cloudy, and with that temperatures won’t rise much if at all during the day, remaining in the upper 30s to low 40s in the warmer urban areas. Monday night will be dry and quiet as a Canadian high builds in from the northwest. It will be mostly cloudy, with lows in the upper 20s.
Tuesday could see some some snow showers or even a brief period of freezing rain in the morning before switching over to non-freezing rain, as the frontal trough in the Deep South finds an outlet from Pennsylvania through the New York City area and coastal New England. It’s far enough away that it won’t be a big issue, but we could find ourselves on the edge at times. Don’t expect much in terms of precipitation. For most of the day it will be mostly cloudy with highs in the upper 30s. The rain showers should fully move away by the evening lowers, with mostly cloudy skies Tuesday night and lows in the mid 20s.
Wednesday will likely end up being the quiet mild day of the week as a high pressure system briefly builds in from the Ohio River Valley – this system will quickly move eastward, dragging in milder air on its backside, and with winds out of the southwest, temperatures will be in the upper 30s once again, with partly cloudy skies. However, as this high departs eastward, the next storm system to move in late Wednesday evening. This will be one of those systems where just about every form of solid to liquid precipitation will happen, as temperatures will be at or slightly above freezing Wednesday night. Initial rain might switch over to snow are the heat of the day wears off, but then as warmer air nudges in with the low’s clockwise flow, sleet and freezing rain are possible after midnight, so plan for a slower, sloppier commute Thursday morning and keep an eye out for weather updates.
The mixed precipitation should change over to all-rain shortly after sunrise Thursday, and it’s looking like a cloudy, wet day, with highs in the upper 30s. When the low moves east of Tompkins County, it will channel in air from an Arctic high over the Dakotas and pushing eastward. Temperatures will fall quickly after sunset Thursday as the last rain-turned-snow showers clear out. Lows will drop into the low teens and upper single digits Thursday night as mostly cloudy and drier conditions take hold after midnight.
Friday will be cold and cloudy. The clouds will be lake enhanced, but the Arctic air will be too cold and stable to support much in the way of snow. Highs will only get into the mid teens, nearly 20°F below normal. This cold air will remain in place Friday night as the high approaches, and with calm winds, temperatures will fall below zero in many spots – lows will be 0 to +5°F in Ithaca and the suburbs and lakeshore areas, 0 to -5°F elsewhere. It’s a Friday night to stay in.
The weekend will see improvement as the Arctic high moves east and milder air churns northward in its clockwise flow. Saturday is looking to be dry with partly cloudy skies and highs in the mid 20s, and Sunday will be mostly cloudy, rain or snow showers late in the day, and in the upper 30s as a new storm system looks to enter the Southern Tier while the ridge of warm air builds back into the Northeast.
Looking into the last third of the month, it looks like temperatures will be staying above normal as this winter’s eastern jet stream ridge / western jet stream trough configuration continues. Storm systems both weak and strong are likely to follow the jet stream around the edge of the ridge during the period, so precipitation is likely to be above normal, though perhaps less than usual amounts of snow, depending on the arrival of individual systems. The abnormally strong polar vortex is keeping the coldest air bottled up in Northern Canada and Alaska, so even in the cooler-than-normal Western United States, no extreme cold snaps are expected.