SAN ANTONIO – Where to start? The shock of the winter storm in February is still wearing off for most of us and for most of the area’s plant life. The week that followed Valentine’s Day was nothing short of incredible.
So when we put this in the context of history, where does it rank? Comparisons are tricky. Every weather event is different and brings its own set of issues. But, comparisons can also be helpful to understanding patterns and how to better to prepare in the future.
Let’s start with the records. During the event, it felt like a different record was set every day. Here are the numbers that jumped off the page:
- -8 degrees wind chill: On the morning of Feb. 15, San Antonio achieved it’s second coldest wind chill since records have been kept on this statistic (1947). According to the records, San Antonio saw a wind chill of -12 degrees in 1949. Overall, San Antonio has only seen sub-zero wind chills eight times since 1947. The Austin/San Antonio National Weather Service issued its first ever Wind Chill Warning on Feb. 15.
- 107.5 hours at or below 33 degrees: Starting on Feb. 12 and continuing through early Feb. 17, San Antonio saw below-freezing temperatures. Amazingly, this came up 90 minutes short of the record of 109 hours below 33 degrees in January 1951. This is by far the latest in a season that San Antonio has had such a stretch.
- 4 separate calendar days with measurable snow: This is the first time in San Antonio’s history that we have received snow on four separate calendar days: Jan. 10 (0.2″), Feb. 14 (1.2″), Feb. 15 (2.5″), and Feb. 18 (2.5″). It should be noted that in 1951 we received 0.4″ on Jan. 29, a trace on Jan. 30, 0.5″ on Jan. 31, and 0.4″ on Feb. 14.
- 3rd snowiest winter of all-time: In the winter of 1984-1985, we received 15.9″. In 1925-1926, San Antonio saw 7.4″, and this winter totaled up to 6.4″.
- 9 degree low temperature: On the morning of Feb. 15, San Antonio International Airport dipped to 9 degrees, which ties for the 8th coldest temperature all-time. This occurred as snow was exiting the region and skies were clearing.
|1||0°||January 31, 1949|
|2||4°||February 12, 1899|
|3||5°||January 30, 1949|
|4||6°||December 23, 1989|
|5||6°||February 2, 1951|
|6||6°||February 13, 1899|
|7||6°||January 8, 1886|
|8||9°||February 15, 2021|
- 5 record lows in one week: San Antonio set record lows Feb. 14, 15, 16, 19, and 20, with temperatures of 13, 9, 12, 19, and 26 degrees respectively.
- 7th coldest February of all-time: February 2021 now ranks as the 7th coldest since records have been kept (1885), thanks to the arctic outbreak. That’s with several days in the 70s and one in the 80s before and after the bitter cold stretch.
- 11.2 inches of snow in Del Rio, most all-time: On Feb. 18, a second round of snow brought 11.2 inches to Del Rio. This is the largest all-time snowfall, beating the previous record of 8.7 inches on Jan. 12 and 13 of 1985.
- Two ice events and two snow events: There’s no record for this stat, but San Antonio saw essentially four separate winter weather events over the course of a week: The first round of freezing rain was reported in Hill Country on Feb. 11. Freezing drizzle fell for much on the area on Feb. 14, followed by snow late on the 14 and into the 15. Another round of freezing rain fell on the morning of Feb. 17, with a final snowfall on Feb. 18. You can bet this won’t happen again anytime soon.
- Winter Storm Warnings statewide: For the first time, according to the National Weather Service, EVERY county in the state was under a Winter Storm Warning by Sunday Feb. 14.
When digging through the numbers, as we noted above, you won’t find another winter weather outbreak in South Texas that included two ice events and two snowfalls. In that sense, this outbreak stands alone. But, there are some comparisons to be made.
- February 2011: This is the most recent comparison. While significant, this event falls somewhat short of what we encountered in 2021. San Antonio would spend 42 hours sub-freezing and receive a round of freezing rainfall. This would be followed by around a half an inch of snow. It made for a traffic nightmare and while some pipes did freeze, the issues were not as widespread.
- December 1989: This is an event that many here in San Antonio remember. There was some snow with this outbreak, but not much. The bigger story was the temperatures. San Antonio spent 51 hours below freezing, with consecutive low temperatures of 13°, 6°, and 16°. Overall, San Antonio recorded seven consecutive nights below freezing. Like our recent outbreak, this one killed a lot of plant life, including many of the area’s palm trees.
- January 1985: There’s not much to compare here, other than snow. While January of 1985 was cold, temperatures during that year’s record snowfall only bottomed out at 23 degrees. The snowfall would pile up to 13.2 inches. No other snowfall has even come close to challenging that record.
- January/February 1951: The cold stretch from late January to early February 1951 might best line up with what happened this year, with regards to duration of freezing temperatures. This time frame still holds the record of consecutive hours below 33 degrees (109 hours). This included six consecutive nights below 20 degrees, bottoming out on Feb. 2 with a low of 6 degrees. While there are not many reports, plant life most definitely took a hit with this outbreak, too.
- January 1949: In late January 1949, an arctic cold front swept through Texas. It brought more than 4 inches of snow to San Antonio by Jan. 30, while temperatures dipped to 5 degrees. The following night, as skies cleared and with a snow pack on the ground, San Antonio achieved its all-time coldest temperature of 0 degrees.
- February 1899: Dubbed the “Great Arctic Outbreak of 1899,″ this cold air intrusion brought record cold to much of the country, including South Texas. San Antonio would see lows of 4 degrees and 6 degrees, while a small only a small amount of precipitation was noted.
- February 1895: Ten out of 11 straight days, low temperatures dipped below freezing, with the coldest being 11 degrees. This was no doubt a tough month for South Texas agriculture and plants. San Antonio also picked up 4.2 inches of snow during that February.
The amount of cold air that pushed south is not unprecedented, as noted above. What was different was the mixture of extreme cold and added precipitation. In addition, extreme weather events have occurred with more frequency in South Texas and the United States over the last few decades. Consider that the all-time busiest hurricane season on record was followed by the extreme cold in Texas. At the end of the day, the answer to why this occurred is not driven by one factor. It takes multiple circumstances to produce an event like the one we witnessed in February. But, climate change is a potential factor and more extreme weather may head our way in the coming decades.