Past years that have had particularly warm weather in January also have one other feature in common—El Niño. The appearance of that strong Pacific current helps push temperatures up across the Americas, and brings up averages around the globe. But on Thursday NOAA published the National Climate Report for January, and it showed two remarkable things. One, as earlier estimates had already hinted, this was the warmest January ever recorded around the globe. The second thing was that this record was reached even while there was no sign of the warming El Niño.
Much of the United States has experienced a winter that is warm, but not so exceptionally warm that it seemed all that unusual. Except it was. Temperatures have averaged 3-6 degrees above average over most of the 48 contiguous states, with areas like Michigan and Minnesota seeing temperatures 10 degrees above average. And if you think it was cold in your neighborhood … you’re wrong.
Regional average temperatures have been “much above normal” in both the Midwest and Northeast. And every other area has rated at least “above normal.” At the state level, 20 states reached that much above normal rating, including states in the Southcentral and Southeast regions.
The warm month brought considerable moisture in the east, but continued a drought in the west that has already left California with significantly reduced snow pack — conditions that may lead to both increased fire danger and potential water shortages later in the year. Over the next three months, the Southeast is expected to be cool and rainy, while the rest of the country remains warmer and drier than average.
And January was not alone. Going back to November, there is not a single county outside of Alaska and Hawaii that shows a temperature below average. It has been warm everywhere. So much so that local stations and papers across the Upper Midwest have bemoaned the lack of ice fishing on the Great Lakes. And some of those who have ignored warnings about ice conditions have paid a grim price.
Conditions at the Great Lakes are currently unusual in ways other than just an ice shortage. NOAA also reports that 2019 was the wettest year on record across much of the Midwest. As a result, water levels in the Great Lakes are at an all time high; up to a foot above previous records. That may not sound like a lot, but for those with docks, homes, and businesses along the lake shores, it’s very significant. Pared with the low ice coverage, this high water is turning January storms into punishing property damage with waves pounding away at buildings and eroding shorelines. Just as storm surge damage from hurricanes is increased when the storm strikes at high tide, it is now constantly “high tide” on the Great Lakes, and the usual winter gales are generating waves of 20’ or more.
As The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday, storms are cutting away 40’ of land from coastal areas in only a few hours, as homes are battered by wind and waves. The estimated damage is already running into the kinds of numbers that might be expected for a a hurricane, as streets, piers, and bridges crumble. According to the Journal “monster waves” are causing “homes to plummet into the water.” And it’s not over.
The damage being caused along the lakefront of Chicago and other cities along the Great Lakes shows that concerns about rising water levels aren’t limited to the oceans. The Climate crisis is bringing unexpected combinations of water, storms, and temperatures that fundamentally change the nature of conditions around the world. And it’s doing it right now.