On my first night in Tucson, back in January 1997, I slept in a sleeping bag in front of a fireplace, rousing myself occasionally to stoke the embers.
Somehow I hadn’t got the gas turned on before moving into my new place on East Flower Street — and the low that night was in the upper 20s. How was a guy from Minneapolis who had just spent a year in Flagstaff to know he could be colder in Tucson than in either of those snowy cities?
I’m sure this week, someone else is making their own memories of unexpected cold in Tucson. It has seemed so cold and so wet this winter for so long that some people are getting sick of it, which is hard to believe in a city with a climate as hot as ours.
A winter visitor from Boulder, Colorado, Malcolm Orton, told me he learned during a surprising cold snap last year that “Buying gloves in Tucson, there isn’t much of a selection.” He and his wife, Janet, were walking their dog along the Rillito Tuesday morning, enjoying the beautiful scene of snow on the Catalinas and water flowing in the riverbed, but the couple, who have been coming here for six years, was still ready for it to get warmer.
“The first four years we came here, it was 80 degrees every day,” Janet said.
If we’re honest with ourselves, as wimpy as it may sound, a lot of Tucsonans are ready for warmer weather.
But here’s the crazy thing — the weather has not been that unusual by historical averages. It’s mostly been unusual compared to the warm, dry winters that we’ve had for the last decade or more, a period that began long after my freezing night on East Flower.
“We’re logging a pretty near long-term-average winter, temperature-wise,” University of Arizona meteorologist Mike Crimmins told me. “It’s not record cold.”
In fact, he said, Tucson averages 16 days below freezing per winter. As of Tuesday we had had just 10 this winter, with Wednesday morning set to make it 11. We still might not even reach the average number of below-freezing days for the season, believe it or not.
A weak El Niño helped produce this year’s return to near-normal temperatures and increasing precipitation, Crimmins said. Also, early-season storms broke the grip of warmth and opened the gate to Arctic air that has continued to filter south with the parade of storms.
Here’s how this winter’s months have stacked up compared to the 30-year average of 1981 to 2010, according to monthly reports compiled by John Glueck of the National Weather Service:
November was about average temperature-wise, with significantly less rain than normal.
December was 1.3 degrees warmer than average, but also had above-average precipitation.
January was also average in terms of temperature, with slightly above-average rainfall.
It wasn’t till February that the winter became cooler than average. So far this month, the average temperature has been 53 degrees, which is significantly lower than the monthly average of 55.6, National Weather Service meteorologist Glenn Lader said. And that will probably not change, as cooler weather is set to stay in place for the next week or so.
“It’s going to be below normal for the month no matter what,” Lader said.
The precipitation is already above average for the month — 0.92 of an inch to date, as compared to an average of 0.6 of an inch — and is set to go much higher. The storm forecast to arrive Thursday could bring between 0.75 and 1.5 inches of rain to valley locations, Lader said. Mount Lemmon could get up to 40 inches of snow.
So yes, it will definitely be a colder and wetter than average February, but most likely the season will end up close to average, Crimmins said. It’s just that in a time of warming temperatures and less rain, we’re not used to it.
And frankly, we know what’s coming — the dry month of May, the 110-degree temperatures of June. Knowing that, we should really just soak it in.
That’s what Tucsonan Hannah Pierce-Carlson was doing when I spoke with her after talking to the Ortons .
“I love it. It’s refreshing,” she said. “I enjoy the dynamics of the clouds. It’s a show.”
That’s the spirit. This show will be over before we know it, so we ought to enjoy it.
Photos of snow around Tucson: