ITHACA, N.Y. — Yes, it’s March. Yes, most folks are complaining it’s still cold. But if it makes you all feel any better, we’re in for quite the substantial warm-up towards the middle of the week, with some 60s possible for a couple of days before temperatures return to more seasonable (not frigid) readings. Apart from some rain late week, no big storms are in this week’s forecast.

Also, a big thank you to Ithaca’s Deb Mohlenhoff for the lead picture in this Sunday’s forecast, a fantastic sunset shot on the Commons snapped earlier this week.

Graphic courtesy of the Northeast Regional Climate Center.

Weather Recap

With February’s data finalized, let’s confirm what you already know: it was a cold and very snowy month. According to the Northeast Regional Climate Center located on Cornell’s campus, the average reading during February 2021 was a frosty 21.9°F,  3.4°F below normal. That might sound substantial, but it’s only 42nd coldest out of about 122 years of valid (complete) February records. February tends to be a highly variable month because the temperature gradient between the equator and North Pole is close to its climatological maximum. One need only go back to February 2015 to remember how cold it can get, as that month holds the all-time record for coldest month with an average temperature of 10.1°F – which was noted in this publication with barely-concealed contempt.

Regionally, most places beyond the New England coast recorded a colder-than-normal February. Of the 35 first-order weather stations, 28 were below normal and five were above-normal (Baltimore and Bridgeport were exactly at their averages). No one, however, had a “top 20” coldest.

As meteorological winter (Dec 1 – Feb 28/29) is officially over, seasonal readings state we were a notch above average this year by about 1°F, which for all practical purposes is near normal. Only five of the 35 first-order weather stations were below normal for the season, and none by more than a degree. Six had “Top 20” warmest season, with Caribou, Maine recording its third-warmest meteorological winter on record.

Graphics courtesy of the Northeast Regional Climate Center.

 

 

On the precipitation-side, we have a more interesting story to tell. February 2021 was a boon for snow-lovers. At 36.5″, it was far above the average of 14.2″ typically seen during the month, and the third-snowiest month on record after 1972 (37.1″) and 2010 (42.4″). For meteorological winter, the period was the 9th snowiest in Ithaca’s record, with 69.5″ (the record is 102.9″ in the winter of 1977-78).

Interestingly, because much of that came in the form of lake effect rather than oceanic moisture, there wasn’t much meltwater – lake effect is a dry, fluffy snow. The result is that with rain and liquid-equivalent measurement from melt combined, February’s precipitation total was 2.43″, not much higher than the 1.98″ typically seen; also note that February is climatologically Tompkins County’s driest month of the year, that 2.43″ would be drier-than-normal in most months of the year. The long story short on this is, don’t expect a high flooding risk as the rest of this melts off. However, this should replenish the groundwater nicely, and unless Ithaca hits a severe spring drought, the area will be in good shape for the summer months.

Much of the Northeast was snowier-than-normal for February, with 27 of 34 stations above-normal (Huntington, West Virginia’s measuring ruler went missing for a little while so it’s excluded here). Scranton and Allentown recorded their second-snowiest Februaries on record. Seasonally, the Twin Tiers were slammed with snow this year. 12 of 34 stations had a “Top 20” snowiest, but Binghamton was the only one to set a new all-time seasonal record, with 94.3″ of snow, 37.2″ above normal. As you can see from the graphics, the lake-effect belt was mostly lacking this year; Syracuse is 29.2″ below normal for the period, and the least-snowy weather station compared to its climate normal. Luckily for the Salt City, overall liquid-precipitation was only a little below normal, so drought risks are low. Even Binghamton is only a little-above normal (13% wetter).

So, onto March, which is off to a cold if dry start. This week offers a modest amount of precipitation and an early spring heat wave to balance out this initial cold, as we’ll jump into with this week’s “Weekly Weather” segment.

Your Weekly Weather

It’s a bright if cold Sunday afternoon as high pressure over the Upper Great Lakes remains in control of our local column of atmosphere. With the clockwise flow around high pressure systems in the Northern Hemisphere, that means a cold north-northwesterly flow, hence the generally stable conditions (the lake effect from Friday and Saturday is a localized instability thanks to Lake Ontario’s heat) and below-normal temperatures.

However, as mid-latitude extratropical systems often do in this part of the globe, that large and strong high will continue to move east. Once it clears this longitude and we’re on its rear flank, the flow will turn so that it comes out of the south, and that means a substantial warm-up is in store for this week.

For the rest of your Sunday, we can’t discount an errant snow shower or two downwind from Ontario, but the fetch over the lake is limited and the air is dry and stable enough to generally prevent snow band development. Generally, skies will be partly cloudy with highs around 30°F. Tonight will see decreasing clouds as winds die down with the approaching core of the high, and the lake’s heat is no longer tapped. There could be some valley ice crystal fog by sunrise as conditions will be ideal for cooling, and it will be very cold, with lows 5-10 above zero.

Monday will warm up quickly and significantly as a light south breeze kicks in with the high shifting east. It will be partly cloudy, and highs should make it into the low 40s. The high’s core shifts southward as a low pressure storm system presses against it while passing to the north, and Monday night will barely drop off temperature-wise, into the upper 30s for lows with partly cloudy skies as the high’s rear flank taps into air from further south and brings that northward on southerly winds.

Tuesday will be even warmer as the high, now centered over the Carolinas, continue to pump in milder air from the south while keeping conditions stable. It will be partly cloudy with highs in the low 50s. Tuesday night will be partly cloudy with lows in the mid 30s.

Wednesday will be warmer still as a storm system developed in the less of the Rocky Mountains and strengthens over the Great Plains; this tightens the pressure gradient on the rear flank of the high, which increases the southerly flow and the amount of mild air it can advect northward. It will be a beautiful day to be outdoors given that it’s early March, with a few passing clouds and highs in the low 60s in Ithaca, and upper 50s in the surrounding towns. Wednesday night will be some clouds build in as the storm moves closer, but it will remain dry and mild, with mostly cloudy skies and lows in the mid 40s.

Some rain showers will be possible during the day Thursday as the low moves northwest of Ithaca across the Great Lakes and into Canada. That said, the bulk of it will hold off until after sunset when the low approaches our longitude. During the day, it will still be mild, with mostly cloudy skies, a strong southerly breeze, a few rain showers, and highs in the low 60s. Thursday night will be showery through sunrise Friday, and cloudy. With that moisture and cloud cover, it’ll be a mild night, with lows in the upper 40s.

The frontal boundary with that low should sweep through a little after sunrise Friday, but with all that mild air pumped up ahead of it, it’s still going to be a mild day for early March. Showers early will give way to partly cloudy and drier conditions by afternoon. Highs will be in the mid 50s in the late morning and early afternoon, sliding back to upper 40s by sunset with a westerly breeze. Friday night will be mostly cloudy and dry, with lows in the mid 30s.

Saturday and Sunday look fairly quiet thanks to a Canadian high, though a developing storm system over the Great Plains will be lurking, its warm front just to the south for much of the weekend. The storm will likely impact the local weather by Monday as it begins to lift northeastward. Plan for low 40s and partly cloudy Saturday, mid 20s and cloudy overnight, and mostly cloudy and upper 30s for Sunday.

Graphics courtesy of the NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

Extended Outlook

Looking into the ides of March and towards the first day of astronomical spring, the pattern calls for a broad and somewhat diffuse area of colder-than-normal air over the lower 48, with some modeling showing more persistent and intense cold over the Mountain West where the trough in the jet stream is expected to be most pronounced. Precipitation for the Northeast is expected to be to slightly-above-normal for the period as the downstream jet stream ridge will be just off the Eastern seaboard. There’s nothing that indicates severe cold; we’re talking upper 30s, maybe lower 40s for highs during this period. But given this outlook, my advice is that you take advantage of those 50s and 60s this week, because it might be a couple weeks before they make a return to the Southern Tier.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.