February may have seemed colder than in past years — considering it snowed and the average temperature came in below the norm — but that’s because the previous four Februarys were so warm.
The monthly average temperature this February was just over 51.5 degrees, about 3.6 degrees colder than the long-term average. This marked a significant departure from the previous four mild Februaries, which included the warmest February on record in 2015 and second warmest in 2016.
Tucson never reached 80 degrees during the short month. Most daily highs were in the 50-degree range and the National Weather Service even recorded a daily high in the mid-40s on Feb. 22, when it snowed for hours turning our desert landscape into a winter wonderland.
On six overnights last month, the thermometer dipped to freezing or below.
While this sounds dramatic, February was only the 31st coldest in the Tucson record books, according to John Glueck, senior meteorologist at NWS. And considering the winter season as a whole, it was about average.
“Those cold records are rather safe as the Earth warms,” Glueck said.
“We have had exceptional weather this February, but on average it doesn’t stand out as extreme minimum in the long-term record,” said University of Arizona climatologist Michael Crimmins. The only reason it feels exceptional is because we’re comparing it to the most recent Februarys which were all hot and dry record-breakers, he said.
Crimmins doesn’t give a lot of credit to winter’s weak El Niño for the winter weather variability, it’s more the lack of La Niña, which typically locks in the hot and dry winters the Southern Arizona has grown accustomed to.
“La Niñas are so reliable in how they mess up winter weather, that when they’re not here, it’s like anything is possible; There’s no bouncer at the door so any riffraff weather can get in,” he said.
Crimmins thinks there are other, more influential atmospheric players driving this wet, cool season, such as the atmospheric river dragging record-breaking moisture into California and beyond from the Pacific and a wavy jet stream letting in the moisture and importing cold arctic air as it dips into the desert.
Tucson International Airport, the official recording station, received 2.03 inches of rain last month, 1.22 inches above average.
Since Oct. 1, the start of what meteorologists call the Water Year, Tucson has received over 7.5 inches of rain. Since Jan. 1, we’ve seen over 3 inches. These totals are way above the 4.16 and 1.77 respective long-term averages.
Moreover, since the year’s start, the airport has logged 2.3 inches of snow. Nearly 2 inches fell Feb. 22. Other parts of town have seen even more. Oro Valley got at least 2 inches. Catalina got up to 4 inches. Oracle reported a whopping 10 inches.
Mount Lemmon trumped it all though, getting snowfall well above the norm.
According to Alan Strauss, director of Catalina Sky Survey which is perched atop the peak, Mount Lemmon received between 45-50 inches of snow Feb. 22. He noted the road is in great condition now and he’s never seen Ski Valley look so good.
“The system is primed to shed run off,” Crimmins said.
Glueck and Crimmins expect Sabino and Tanque Verde creeks to run with water well into next month.
The variable weather could also continue into March, Crimmins added, thanks to the weak El Niño. But, he said, “the one month forecast is a complete shrug.”