The saying goes something like, “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” But this year it didn’t quite turn out that way.
As a transition between winter and spring in the U.S., March is the kind of month where just about any type of weather can happen. Coming off a very warm February 2017, many of us were tricked into thinking spring had arrived. However, an Arctic plunge of frigid air plowed into the nation’s midsection in mid-March, dashing hopes of an early spring and freezing plants as far south as Florida.
Climate by the numbers
Last month, the average contiguous U.S. temperature was 46.2 degrees F, 4.7 degrees above the 20th-century average. This ranked as the ninth warmest March in the 123-year period of record, according to scientists from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. Record and near-record warmth spanned 13 states in the West and Great Plains, with below-average temperatures in the Northeast.
The average precipitation total for March was 2.56 inches, 0.05 inch above the 20th-century average, and ranked near the middle of the record. Much-above-average precipitation across the Northwest offset much-below-average precipitation in the Southeast.
Year to date
The year-to-date (January through March 2017) average temperature was 40.3 degrees F, 5.1 degrees above the 20th-century average. This was the second warmest first quarter of the year in the record behind 2012. The year-to-date precipitation total for the Lower 48 states was 8.09 inches, 1.13 inches above average. This ranked as the 10th wettest for this period on record.
More notable climate events
- Record number of billion-dollar disasters: From January to March, the U.S. experienced 5 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, a record start to the year. These included a flood, a freeze, and three severe storms, collectively causing 37 fatalities.
- Wildfires burned vast areas of Great Plains, Southeast: Warm and windy conditions across the Great Plains and Southeast fueled wildfires that burned more than two million acres. This was nearly 700 percent of average and set a new record for March.
- Record-warm March for the Southern Rockies: Colorado and New Mexico had their warmest March on record, with near record warmth throughout the West and Southern Plains.
- Tornadoes plagued the Midwest: Several tornado outbreaks impacted the central U.S., including tornadoes in late February and early March that killed 4 people in Illinois and Missouri.
- Cold returned to Alaska: The average statewide temperature in March was 4.1 degrees F, 6.7 degrees F below average and the coldest since 2007. This ended the state’s stretch of 17 continuous months of above-average temperatures.
- Continued drought relief in the West: By the end of March, 14.2 percent of the contiguous U.S. was in drought, up slightly from the end of February. Drought expanded and intensified in Mississippi River Valley and Hawaii’s Big Island and improved in the West and Northeast. Mountain snowpack totals across most of the West were above average.