WILMINGTON — The first 16 days of January have seen an average of 12.4 degrees above normal, the fifth-warmest start to a year in Wilmington’s history, as the second half of the month is expected to see below-normal temperatures.
January’s hot start followed the second warmest year — and the warmest decade — ever recorded in Wilmington, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Tim Armstrong.
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“We haven’t had a January start off this warm since 1950,” Armstrong said. “So we’re certainly in some pretty unusual circumstances … As a whole 2019 was the second warmest year in history in Wilmington behind 1990. So these warmer years are starting to stack up pretty rapidly.”
At 2.3 degrees above normal, 2019 missed the overall record in 1990 by a tenth of a degree, according to Armstrong, who said climate data was first collected in Wilmington by NWS’s predecessor, the U.S. Army Signal Corps, in 1874.
This was helped by the hottest May conditions ever seen by the NWS Wilmington office.
“We hit 101 [degrees] on May 29 — that’s the earliest Wilmington had ever seen 100-degree temperatures in town,” Armstrong said.
The first week of October also reached the upper-90s for several days, marking the highest temperatures ever recorded that late into the year, according to Armstrong.
But the pattern has flipped with a cold front coming through the region on Friday night, and Armstrong expects below-normal temperatures for the rest of the month.
While temperatures have “run warmer than normal pretty consistently in Wilmington” the past five years, according to Armstrong, it is too difficult to link to weather patterns like El Niño or overall climate change.
“In terms of why it’s happening, it’s not as clear cut as I would like,” Armstrong said. “We like to talk about El Niño and La Niña — big climate shifts than can cause excessive rainfall or excessive drought. And we really have none of that going on right now. In fact, there is no El Niño or La Niña; it’s a neutral condition in the Pacific Ocean, so we can’t blame this on that.”
Last year also saw below-average rainfall, a major shift from 2018 — the wettest year on record in Wilmington (more than 100 inches) due to a wet spring and winter with the slow-moving Hurricane Florence in between. Through August 6 of last year, “we were having the driest year in history in Wilmington,” according to Armstrong.
Dry conditions caused significant agricultural impacts in the region, a year after many crops were covered in water. Farm fields near the airport that he passes while driving to and from work “totally lost their corn crop last year” due to drought and above-average heat, Armstrong said.
The summer drought also severely taxed Pender County’s ability to carry water to its densely populated coastal region, while the regional system providing water for 350,000 people hit its limit in May.
“So we’ve had some amazing switches from extreme wet to extreme dry. But the heat has stayed with us through all of that,” Armstrong said.
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