January crammed 5 months of Austin weather into 4 weeks: Snow, springlike heat, bit of rain

Kelsey Bradshaw
Austin American-Statesman

In what was possibly the most anticipated January of all time as we looked to get rid of the wretched year of 2020, the month did not disappoint. We got snow in Central Texas, for crying out loud!

January brought five months' worth of weather in four weeks: Enough snow to make snowmen, springlike temperatures flirting with 80 degrees and even a little bit of rainfall, according to the National Weather Service.

Austin's average high for the month was 65.3 degrees, about 4 degrees warmer than normal, according to the weather service. The average for the month, including highs and lows, was 53.6, about 2 degrees above normal.

"It's certainly not too significant," meteorologist Ethan Williams said of the degree departure. "But you'll have some months that are above and some that are below" normal.

But as Januarys go, 2020's was actually a lot warmer that 2021's: Last year's January average temperature of 57.5 made it Austin's seventh-warmest on record.

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Rowdy Stoval slides down a hill in the snow on a surfboard at Murchison Middle School in Northwest Austin on Jan. 10.

The data the weather service uses as a benchmark for what's normal are due for an upgrade. Every 30 years, new normals are determined, meaning the averages currently used by the weather service are from 1981 to 2010.

The weather service expects new normals by the end of 2021, Williams said. So what will the new baselines show with the effects of climate change even more pronounced?

"We're curious, too," he said.

Despite the warmer temperatures, Camp Mabry, Austin's main weather station, recorded 1.5 inches of snowfall Jan. 10. While snow is not out of the ordinary as late December, January and February are normally the coldest months for the Austin area, it's pretty rare for Central Texas.

Usually, strong cold fronts push moisture out of the area, leaving little chance for snow to develop, Williams said.

The front in early January was shallower, temperatures were freezing and a little over an inch of precipitation fell, making conditions just right for snow to develop, Williams said.

"It's only when we can get those freezing temperatures but enough moisture to hang around to see snow," he said. "That's why it's kind of infrequent for us, and also we're so far south."

Only 1.63 inches of rain fell in January, which is below the normal 2.22 inches, according to the weather service. Travis County is abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor's latest report, and Williams said the Austin area will need some good spring showers to catch up on rainfall.

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"We were below normal for much of the last half of 2020, so we're quickly falling behind (on precipitation), and it would be good to get some rainfall this spring so we're set up nicely for the summer," he said.

The effects of La Niña, the seasonal cooling of the eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator, are expected to linger into March. La Niña in winter tends to make Central Texas warmer than normal and drier than normal.

Even with warm and dry conditions expected, anything is possible.

"When you're talking about averages and being above and below normal, for January we were still a few degrees above normal and we still had one snow event," Williams said. "So that's not to say we can't get a strong front down here (in February); it's just when you average out, we have good chances for above normal temperatures and below normal rainfall."

Todd Fine makes a snowman with his 11-year-old twin sons, Parker, left, and Wesley, in their front yard on North Hills Drive in Northwest Austin on Jan. 10.