Austin — and possibly all of Texas — just experienced the warmest winter on record.
As the already blooming wildflowers can attest, this winter – which ended Tuesday, according to the meteorological calendar – was freakishly warm. More than one out of every four days this winter topped 80 degrees at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The average temperature at Austin’s weather station at Camp Mabry hit 58.7 degrees, a full degree higher than the next-warmest winter season, the winter of 1999-2000.
In only one previous winter, that of 1989-90, were freezing temperatures banished earlier than this winter. The first 90-degree day came nearly two months earlier than average. The four tornadoes that hit the Austin area overnight Feb. 19-20 were the kind of minidisaster that usually hits in spring. And though no formal data on footwear was readily available, anecdotal evidence suggests a sharp uptick in flip-flop use.
“We’ve just really had no winter,” said Troy Kimmel, a University of Texas meteorologist and instructor. “We saw winter on the calendar, but we didn’t see it in real life.”
That was the story across much of Texas, particularly the southern and southeastern parts, which also saw record warmth. In total, about half the state appears to have set records, as Texas as a whole might have, state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said.
“Right now, based on preliminary data, (this winter) is in a dead heat, so to speak, with 1907,” Nielsen-Gammon said.
He said the warm winter could bring issues, such as fruit trees having fewer cold days than usual to form buds, and plants blooming so early as to be at risk during a hard freeze, should one unexpectedly arrive. But to those terrified a warm winter could portend something terrible in a state that tends to deliver scorching summers, Nielsen-Gammon offered some reassurance.
“There’s very little correlation,” he said, “between winter temperatures and summer temperatures.”
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The better gauge of summer temperatures is spring rainfall. A dry spring could expose Texas to drought, heightened wildfire risk and a longer fire season as summer sets in. But as of now, seasonal forecasts are giving about even odds of higher or lower rainfall than average, Nielsen-Gammon said. Electric Reliability Council of Texas forecaster Chris Coleman said Wednesday he expects the above-normal temperatures to continue, but to be accompanied by above-normal rainfall.
If a hot summer is in the offing, Central Texas approaches it in good shape. Lakes Travis and Buchanan, the region’s main water supplies, are sparkling and full.
Austin is also in better shape because of a wetter winter that produced a robust 8.76 inches of rainfall at Camp Mabry, 2.12 inches above normal, according to Lower Colorado River Authority meteorologist Bob Rose.
The warmer winter isn’t proof of climate change. But the winter temperatures are in keeping with the long-term trend of Texas warming since the 1970s, Nielsen-Gammon said. Since the ’70s, when Texas reached the end of several decades of cooling, the average temperature has risen about 2 degrees. Since 1990, South Central Texas has gone through four years in which the average temperature was 4 degrees or more above normal, with only one year 4 degrees or more below normal, Nielsen-Gammon said.
Climate scientists at the University of Texas and Texas Tech University couldn’t be reached Wednesday for their assessment. But one, Texas Tech climatologist Katharine Hayhoe, has studied Austin and concluded that the city is headed for more 100-plus-degree days and fewer freezing nights, exposing the city “to drier conditions, particularly in summer,” even with annual rainfall totals not expected to change significantly.
At Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, the city’s other official weather station, this winter was officially only the second-warmest on record, according to the National Weather Service. But Rose and Kimmel said the airport’s historical data are tricky because the airport kept its records slightly differently until the mid-1990s, when it became a civilian facility. The winter that is officially warmest there, 1995-96, has 30 days of missing data and should be discounted, Rose said — removing any doubt that this winter was Austin’s warmest.
The end of winter came with the first bluebonnet sightings (although, astronomically speaking, spring doesn’t arrive until the vernal equinox on March 20). The warmest winter on record also ended with the warmest February on record at Camp Mabry. This February’s average temperature was 64.5 degrees – remember, that’s the average temperature across the entire day – which was more than 2 degrees higher than the next-warmest February in 1999. The average temperature was 9.1 degrees higher than the month’s historical average at Camp Mabry, adding immediacy to debates about whether cargo shorts or golf shorts are best.
This was also the warmest winter in many parts of Texas, including Houston. That city finished with 22 days above 80 degrees, Houston-based meteorologist Matt Lanza said.
Lanza Tweeted out a picture of a tombstone rendered in the pixelated style of the old “Oregon Trail” computer game. The tombstone bore the inscription: “Here lies winter 2016-17, tried to ford the atmospheric river and lost.”
This winter in Austin
The winter of 2016-17 saw three months with unusually high average temperatures:
• December: 55 degrees, 2.5 degrees above normal
• January: 56.7 degrees, 5.2 degrees above normal
• February: 64.8 degrees, 9.5 degrees above normal