Iowa's colder than normal January could have been worse

October through January chill is seventh-worst on record; precipitation lags

Orlan Love
Published: February 2 2014 | 6:00 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:00 am in

January, typically Iowa’s coldest month, has been much colder than normal this year, but not as cold as it has been in 30 other years.

With an average statewide temperature of 13.6 degrees – 5.8 degrees below normal – this has been the 31st coldest January in 142 years of record keeping, according to State Climatologist Harry Hillaker.

If this winter seems interminable, Hillaker said that’s because the colder-than-normal weather started in October.

The recent October through January period is the seventh coldest such period on record, he said.

While extreme cold is usually accompanied by above-average snowfall, that has not been the case this January, he said.

The statewide average of 5.6 inches of snow is more than 2 inches below the January normal of 7.7 inches, making this January’s snowfall the 45th lowest in 127 years, Hillaker said.

“With the jet stream way south of its typical January location, Iowa has been in a very persistent snow pattern,” he said.

The big storms that form in the Southwest – called panhandle hooks when they veer northward - have been steered far south of Iowa, while the fast-moving, moisture-starved Alberta clippers generally have just clipped northeast Iowa on their way east, Hillaker said.

With the jet stream repositioning itself farther north, Hillaker said February likely will have fewer outbreaks of arctic air and more snow storms originating in the Southwest, with the first of them having arrived Saturday.

Because of those clippers’ storm tracks, snowfall has been much heavier in northeast Iowa than in the rest of the state.

In Dubuque, for example, 14.1 inches of snow fell in January, which compares with 5.3 inches in Cedar Rapids and 5 inches in Iowa City.

Most of the state has had little if any snow cover in January, with the exception of northeast Iowa, where snow depth ranged from 10 to 15 inches.

Snow cover tends to lower temperatures, with 10-degree differences often noted between nearby locales, with bare ground and 8-inch snow packs, according to Hillaker.

In snow-covered Dubuque, 38 degrees was as warm as it got in January, while the temperature exceeded 38 degrees on 12 January days in bare-ground Des Moines, he said.

In Fayette, in the heart of Iowa’s 2014 snow belt, the average temperature in January was just 8.7 degrees, nearly 5 degrees cooler than the statewide average, Hillaker said.

Though January snowfall in Cedar Rapids, at 5.3 inches, has been 3 inches below the January average, snow and ice removal costs have been above average, according to Craig Hanson, maintenance manager for the Cedar Rapids Public Works Department.

Whereas Cedar Rapids normally would have from seven to eight snow events in January, plows and sand trucks were on the streets 10 times for snow and twice for ice last month, Hanson said.

Because crews have been called out on the New Year’s Day holiday and on three weekends, overtime costs have been above average, he said.

The city also has applied more sand and salt to city streets than would be normal for the amount of snow that has fallen, Hanson said.

With the winter 60 percent over by Hanson’s calculations, his crews have used 2,400 hours of overtime, which equates to 60 percent of the 4,000 hours used in a normal winter.

“We are just about right on track,” he said.

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