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The end of February brings unusual weather across the US

Some cities are getting an early taste of summer, others are bracing for temperatures to plunge again and plains states are wrestling with fire risk.
The end of February brings unusual weather across the US
Posted at 9:05 PM, Feb 26, 2024

February's end is bringing wild weather to much of the United States, with record heat allowing for golf in Wisconsin and outdoor food trucks in Minnesota, along with an increased fire risk across much of the Great Plains. But blinding snow in the Northwest is blowing eastward, and places like Chicago should see temperatures swinging dramatically from balmy to bitter cold again.

“Definitely not the weather we would expect in February. It’s usually super snowy, freezing, you know, ice everywhere. And so we are just trying to take advantage of a very nice week this week,” said Tania Sepulveda, a 30-year-old Chicago therapist who was “working from home” Monday, using her laptop in a grassy spot along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

The sunny weather won't last that long. A powerful storm started dumping snow that could reach several feet in higher elevations of the West promises a return of winter conditions to the central U.S., where it's been unseasonably warm. High winds are already blowing, raising the risk of wildfires across the Great Plains.

The National Weather Service warned that travel could be dangerous later Monday across parts of the Oregon Cascades and Northern Rockies, predicting near-blizzard conditions with one to two inches of snow an hour and winds reaching upwards of 65 mph (104 kph).

The storm will move into the Great Basin and Central Rockies Tuesday, carrying much colder temperatures and strong winds across the inner mountain West, said Andrew Orrison, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in College Park, Maryland. “We'll be very wintry like for the next two days,” he added.

The West is just one place with unusual, and in some cases, dangerous weather conditions. Here is what to expect elsewhere.

It's warm in the heartland

This time of year should be the coldest in places like Chicago. But the city and many others across the central U.S. are getting an early taste of summer with temperatures in the 60s and 70s.

The warm conditions have continued since a balmy weekend brought temperatures reaching into the 60s in Denver, Chicago and Des Moines, Iowa. Kansas City, Missouri, enjoyed temperatures in the mid-70s.

In Chicago, temperatures reached 72 degrees (22 Celsius) by Monday afternoon, breaking Chicago’s old record of 64 degrees (18 Celsius). Winds were expected to ramp up to 25 mph (40 kph).

Highs on Monday were expected to reach the mid-60s across southern Wisconsin and extend as far north as Rhinelander, a city of 8,000 just below Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It reached 64 degrees (18 Celsius) in La Crosse, eclipsing the record for the date of 61 degrees (16 Celsius).

“We’re blowing away the records in northern Illinois into south central and southwestern Wisconsin,” said Mark Gehring, a weather service meteorologist in Sullivan, Wisconsin.

Monday’s warm temperatures will “just about guarantee” that the typically chilly Minneapolis area will have its warmest winter on record, the local weather service office said. While Monday’s forecast high of 63 (17 Celsius) at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport would be one degree below the record set in 1896, St. Cloud in central Minnesota was expected to reach 59 (15 Celsius), breaking the old record of 55 (13 Celsius) set in 1958.

But it isn't quite time for scarves and gloves to be stored until next winter.

Places like Chicago will see a dramatic drop in temperatures by Wednesday, with highs just below freezing and winds gusting as hard as 30 mph (48 kph). In Minnesota, colder weather Tuesday and Wednesday could bring an inch or two of slushy snow that could freeze and make for a dangerous Wednesday morning commute, the weather service said.

SEE MORE: La Nina signals the potential for an active hurricane season ahead

Golf, in Wisconsin, in February?

Weeks of unusually warm weather drove Jessica Blaska-Grady, general manager of the Oaks golf course in the town of Sun Prairie just east of Madison, to reopen for the season on Feb. 9. She said she can remember only one other winter — 2017 — when the course was open in February.

“It’s definitely kind of crazy,” she said. “This is incredibly unusual but I’m not going to lie and say it’s unwelcome. It’s a nice little boost. You’ve got to make hay when the sun shines.”

Lori Cervantes, 53, doesn’t remember a winter like this during the 20 years she lived in Iowa. She moved back eight months ago after living in Portland, Oregon, and said “this weather is such a nice treat.”

She took her dog, Gus, on their daily walk in the “unprecedented” weather and meditated in the sunshine outside the gold-domed Iowa Capitol in Des Moines.

“It’s a little scary, actually,” she said, noting that flower bulbs are already emerging from the ground and wondering how it might affect farmers and fields this growing season. “It’s way to early to be this warm — and dry."

Gehring attributed the unseasonable warmth to an El Nino pattern, the term for warming in the equatorial region of the Pacific Ocean that pushes the jet stream further north. These bands of strong wind form a boundary between cold northern air and warm southern air. Gehring also noted that climate change has been playing in a role in warming temperatures for decades.

The warmer conditions in many parts of the country have led to the cancellation of winter events like ski races and pond hocket tournaments. The latest cancellation was the longest sled dog race in the eastern United States.

Fire risk in the plains

But the warmer temperatures have brought increased risk of fires across the Great Plains.

The National Weather Service said dry, gusty winds were creating what it called critical fire weather conditions, and issued red flag warnings and fire weather watches in parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, up to Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and east to Iowa, Illinois and Missouri.

Nearby states, including parts of Arkansas, Minnesota and Wisconsin, were under hazardous weather outlooks because of an increased fire danger, according to weather service maps. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources issued an advisory Monday morning discouraging burning anything outdoors, noting that 15 wildfires sprang up over the weekend, consuming more than 30 acres.

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