Oh, we love our traditions, weather folklore, and old wives' tales, don't we? The woolly worms predicted a cold winter (aren't they all?) as long as you encountered the right kind of caterpillar. We've got January out of the way, and with it, the January thaw. We're back down into the teens and twenties, having winter the way it was meant to be.
Southern types have likely heard about this January thaw, even if they haven't experienced it. Just what is it? Is it real or just another one of those folklore things? Do things really thaw out?
Yes, Virginia, there is a January thaw. And yes, some things do thaw out. Towards the end of January, the temperatures warm up enough to melt snow and make the very top layer of ground thaw just enough to make things a little slushy and muddy. You start thinking that maybe spring will be early this year, but then you remember how much of a tease Old Man Winter can be.
I remember when we had our exchange student from Ecuador about 15 years ago. Karina thought that when the calendar said March 21st was the first day of spring, we wouldn't have any snow anymore. It would suddenly be warm and the flowers would bloom and we didn't need our coats anymore. Since she lives just 10 miles from the equator in the Andes mountains, every day is the same - like spring. Perfect and glorious, so this change of seasons thing was new to her.
I told her how the weather changes gradually and if the change is too abrupt, we run the risk of tornadoes. Before winter was really over, she had an understanding of things, including the January thaw.
The January thaw is a recognized weather event called a "blip" or "singularity." That means it happens more regularly than it would if by chance. It occurs mainly in the Great Lakes, New England, and Maritime Provinces of North America during the third week of January, on average. For several days, the temperatures reach levels that are at least 10 degrees above normal and at these latitudes, they're above freezing, causing things to thaw somewhat.
"The January thaw is special because it opens Winter's door a crack just when it seems that the ice has locked it tight. Through that crack one can see the certainty of March and April somewhere up ahead....The worst one can say about the January thaw is that it never lasts. It lifts the heart, then drops it with a cold thud when the warm spell passes and the chill congeals the earth again....But when January does relent, even for a day or two, we can celebrate, cautiously."
~ Hal Borland, in "Sundial of the Seasons"
Some winters don't have a January thaw, and while it's not entirely known why it happens, its occurrence is real and recognized by meteorologists, just as is Indian Summer, a similar event that happens on the other side of winter. This year, it occurred during the second week of January, exactly when Mom and I were in New York City. Lucky us!
Now that we're in February, we could have a blizzard next week, or a day or two of what I call "teaser days," when the temperatures warm again as we start our transition into spring. In any case, we're heading into the down side of winter now and that is A Good Thing.
Graph from NBC Philadelphia