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Originally published April 2, 2012 at 9:09 PM | Page modified April 3, 2012 at 12:13 PM

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Our drizzle, their sizzle: 'March madness' of record heat

While March brought the Puget Sound region a month cooler and soggier than normal, much of the U.S. experienced record warm temperatures as the jet stream made an unusual northward shift.

Numbers tell tale of 2 cities

CHICAGO

Average high this March:

63.3

Average high norm:

46.6

SEATTLE

Average high this March:

49.2

Average high norm:

53.7

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BOSTON — The United States broke or tied at least 7,733 daily high-temperature records in March, which is far more than the number of records broken in last summer's heat wave or in a blistering July 1995 heat wave.

New York's airports and Chicago had their all-time warmest March while Central Park had its second-hottest as thousands of weather records were set or tied across the U.S., according to the National Weather Service.

In contrast, March here was cooler and soggier.

For much of the month, record temperatures elsewhere went as high as 35 degrees above normal and averaged about 18 degrees warmer than usual. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration analyzed the causes and chances of what it nicknamed "meteorological March madness."

The warmth was caused mainly by the jet stream, that upper-level air current blowing across the continent, which was much farther to the north than normal, according to Mike Halpert, deputy director of the U.S. Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Md.

While the location of the jet stream was unusual, it wasn't outside standard weather deviations, Halpert said. More study will be needed to determine if the shift in the weather pattern was because of climate change, he said in an interview March 26.

Meteorologist Martin Hoerling said the main cause was a persistent warm wind sending toasty air north from the Gulf of Mexico.

He said the bigger issue was wind patterns. Low pressure in the Pacific Northwest and high pressure in New England created a perfect funnel, like the gutters along a lane in a bowling alley, for warm air in the Gulf of Mexico to head north.

That air is about 15 to 20 degrees warmer than the air in the Midwest. From time to time that air heads north, but what is unusual is that the wind pattern stayed that way for about two weeks.

"Why wouldn't we embrace it as a darn good outcome?" Hoerling asked. "This was not the wicked wind of the east. This was the good wind of the south."

For example, Chicago had nine straight record hot days, eight of them over 80 degrees, when usually that city doesn't hit 80 until late June.

The average in Chicago was 53.5 degrees. That topped the previous mark of 48.6 degrees set in 1910 and matched in 1945, the weather service said, citing data compiled since 1873.

Locally, the average high at Sea-Tac Airport in March was 49.2 degrees, just under the normal 53.7. The average low for the month was 37.1 degrees; normal is 39.3 degrees. The big difference for us: Rainfall for March was 7.2 inches, compared with a normal of 3.72 inches.

In New York's Central Park, the average temperature was 50.9 degrees, 8.9 degrees above normal although below the record 51.1 degrees in 1945, according to the weather service.

Saturday's high temperature in Omaha, Neb., was 91 degrees, a daily record that eclipsed the mark of 88 set in 1946. It also tied the all-time high for the month, recorded March 25, 1907, according to the weather service.

Hoerling said it's hard at this point to cite any specific factor for an event so massive and rare.

"It is a freak event that appeared to have perhaps a freak ancestor, 1910," Hoerling said. In that year there was a similar heat wave.

"To put it in perspective, if it was April, it would still be in the top 10, as far as warmest. It is mind-boggling," said Tom Kines, a meteorologist for AccuWeather in State College, Pa. "There are many areas across the Upper Midwest that have had their warmest March ever. That seems to be where the core of the warmth was."

Hoerling analyzed March temperatures and compared them with past decades and found that since 2001, March has been nearly 2 degrees warmer in much of the country than the 1960-1990 average. So he said that's about 10 percent of the added heat.

Hoerling said a lot of people have worried that if March was this hot, what will June be like? But the March weather has little relation to what comes in summer, he said.

Climate scientists have said the world should expect more extreme weather — like the March heat wave — as the climate changes. But they also hesitate to attribute single weather events to global warming.

Warm weather will probably continue through the center of the country until at least April 10, according to the climate center's latest 6- to 10-day outlook, published Saturday.

There is a 60 percent chance that temperatures will rise above average throughout the Midwest and Mississippi River Valley, including in Chicago, St. Louis and New Orleans, according to the center.

The warmer weather poses a risk for farmers, according to a statement by the Midwest Regional Climate Center.

"Despite the early warmth, climatology tells us that the possibility for a freeze in April remains high, putting early emerging crops and plants at risk," according to the center.

Apple and peach trees have been blooming across the Midwest and eastern U.S. and are also susceptible to freezing temperatures, according to the center. The warm nighttime temperatures have cut the amount of maple syrup production in Wisconsin because less sap is running from the trees.

Apple growers in New York were assessing damage to their trees after temperatures fell into the 20s last week.

Normal temperatures are based on a 30-year average from 1981 to 2010. The normal temperatures, reset last year, were half a degree warmer than the previous benchmarks based on the 1971-2000 average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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