January Thaw to Follow One of the Coldest Recorded Stretches Since Christmas in Plains, Midwest, East

Jon Erdman
Published: January 10, 2018

Relentless cold that has gripped much of the central and eastern U.S. for almost two weeks is finally backing off this week, culminating in a strong January thaw that could last for days.

(MORE: Winter Storm Central | Arctic Cold Recap)

We're guessing most in the cold-fatigued eastern two-thirds of the country are jumping for joy to read this news. It has been a brutal stretch of persistent cold since the weekend before Christmas.

According to data from the Southeast Regional Climate Center (SERCC), the following cities just shivered through the record-coldest Dec. 23-Jan. 5 stretch:

  • Bangor, Maine
  • Worcester, Massachusetts
  • Buffalo, New York
  • Flint, Michigan
  • Green Bay, Wisconsin
  • Duluth, Minnesota
  • Rockford, Illinois
  • Waterloo, Iowa
  • Lincoln, Nebraska

Dozens of other cities from the northern Rockies to Texas to the Great Lakes and East Coast had at least a top-five-coldest two-week stretch ending Jan. 5, according to the SERCC.

(MORE: First Week of 2018 Was the Coldest on Record in Dozens of Cities in the East)

Dec. 23, 2017, through Jan. 5, 2018, temperature rankings, relative to other such periods. Cities in purple boxes denote those that had at least a top-five-coldest Dec. 23-Jan. 5 period on record in 2017-18.

But enough about the cold.

The First Thaw: An Appetizer

The warm-up has already begun with milder air having reached the Plains and upper Midwest on Sunday, then the East Coast on Monday.

Chicago rose above freezing late Sunday night for the first time since Dec. 23. Minneapolis/St. Paul hadn't been above 32 degrees since Dec. 19, but finally rose above that mark midday Monday.

Milder air reached the East Coast on Monday, pushing highs back above freezing as far north as Boston.

The East will warm up again late this week before another cold front sweeps in from the Plains by the weekend. High temperatures late this week in the Northeast could be 10 to 25 degrees above average at times. Highs in the 50s will reach as far north as Chicago on Thursday and Boston on Friday.

(MAPS: 10-Day U.S. High/Low Forecast)

The First Thaw

A few daily record-high temperatures and record-warm low temperatures are likely into late week. A few cities that could set new records for record-warm low temperatures this week are listed below:

  • Minneapolis saw a low of 33 degrees Wednesday morning, which tied the record-warm low for Jan. 10
  • Detroit may see a low in the 40s on Thursday, which would easily break the current record of 38 degrees
  • Cleveland is also expecting a low in the 40s on Thursday, which would top the current record-warm low temperature of 42 degrees
  • Buffalo's current record-warm low temperature of 38 degrees may be broken with lows in the 40s anticipated on Thursday
  • Boston will be close to the current record-warm low of 42 degrees on Friday 
  • Washington D.C. may see a low near 50 degrees on Friday, which is close to the current record of 51 degrees
  • Raleigh, North Carolina will see a low on Friday close to the current record of 55 degrees

Forecast Lows

The Second Thaw: Main Course?

We just mentioned a second cold front later this week, and that doesn't sound like particularly good news for the cold-fatigued. Many areas east of the Rockies will see below-average temperatures this weekend into early next week behind that front.

Later next week, however, a fundamental change of the jet stream pattern may present a stronger January thaw.

"There are strong indications in our numerical weather models that the North Pacific blocking high is going to break down and be replaced by a strong Aleutian cyclone," said Dr. Michael Ventrice, meteorological scientist at The Weather Company, an IBM business.

Ventrice said this persistent blocking high was a culprit in tapping cold air from the Canadian Arctic and sending it deep into the U.S. over the past few weeks.

By late in the week of Jan. 15, this pattern may essentially flip.

Potential jet stream pattern in mid-January that may lead to a more prolonged, widespread January thaw.

"During these events, mild Maritime Pacific air surges in across North America, cutting off the connection with the Arctic Circle," Ventrice said.

(MAPS: 7-Day U.S. Rain/Snow Forecast)

In other words, a potentially much more expansive, long-lasting January thaw might spread across much of the eastern two-thirds of the nation by mid-January.

This would also be a much wetter pattern than recently in the Northwest and at least northern California.

You may be wondering if the worst of winter's cold is in the rear-view mirror. To put it bluntly, probably not.

(MORE: When Is the Coldest Time of Year?)

First, Ventrice noted that the upcoming North Pacific pattern change tends to send waves up into the stratosphere that could eventually agitate the stratospheric polar vortex.

(STUDY: Shifting, Weakening Polar Vortex = More Cold Spells Ahead?)

"These states (when the stratospheric polar vortex is pushed off the North Pole) often coincide with cold spells over the U.S.," Ventrice said.

Also, it's only January; we still have what can be a notoriously cold and stormy February, not to mention March, in some areas.

In the meantime, enjoy some 30s and 40s, instead of subzero cold, starting this week.

Jonathan Erdman is a senior meteorologist at weather.com and has been an incurable weather geek since a tornado narrowly missed his childhood home in Wisconsin at age 7. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.