Winters in the Carolinas are warmer than usual, driven by climate change

Last fall forecasters predicted a warmer, drier winter for the Carolinas, and that’s exactly what we got. This is a trend that dates back to at least the 1970s. In fact, federal weather data shows that winter is heating up faster than any other season in the entire region.

Scientists say it is another sign of the need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

Andrew Pershing, director of climate science at Climate Central.

“Winter is the fastest warming season. It’s a time where both in the Southeast and across our country we tend to get very strong trends, very clear signals,” said Andrew Pershing, director of climate science at Climate Central, a Princeton, New Jersey, an organization of scientists and journalists focused on climate change.

Winter temperatures in major Carolina cities average 2 to 3 degrees above normal, defined as the 20-year average from 1991 to 2020, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It looks at the temperatures from December to February.

Warmer winters follow the trend throughout 2021, which is the sixth hottest on record globally and the fourth hottest in the US, dating back to 1895.

The season starts with Unbelievably warm December – 6-9 degrees above normal in the Southeast. It was slightly below normal in January, then returned to 2-3 degrees warmer than usual in February.

This doesn’t mean winter doesn’t happen. Some parts of North Carolina get up to 5 inches of snow during one storm in January.

“Winter is just a very variable season. So you still get these wild swings,” Pershing said. “This winter seems to be more in a very varied fashion, with many places, including the Carolinas, unusually warm in December, and then January a bit cooler.”

But overall, the temperature is above normal.

In Charlotte, for example, the average this winter is 3.3 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. (Normal is defined as the average for the previous 20 years.) The same is true in other cities such as Raleigh (+3.1 degrees), Wilmington (+3.4 degrees) and Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina, both more of 3.5 degrees above normal. (See table.)

Another way to describe long-term warming trends is to look at the cumulative increase in average winter temperatures over the past few decades. Since the 1970s, Raleigh’s average winter temperature has risen 4.7 degrees; Greensboro is up 4.4 degrees; Greenville, South Carolina, up 3.9 degrees; and Charlotte and Charleston, both up 3.8 degrees.

The cumulative mean winter temperature increase was greater in winter than any other season, Pershing said.

Carolina reflects national trends. Winter temperatures are above average in most of the lower 48 states, according to NOAA. That average temperature for the adjacent US this winter (excluding Alaska and Hawaii) is 34.8°F, or 2.5°F above average. It was among the third hottest winters on record, NOAA said.

Higher temperatures are good, but they also cause problems.

“We’ve heard from a number of people talking to farmers, especially in the Southeast. And (during) these warm winters, crops grew early. But then it only took a day of cold weather to really turn things around,” Pershing said. .

Frost can mean damaged plants or disruption of spring blooms, like the cherry blossoms in Washington, DC, he says.

This story originally appeared in WFAE’s weekly climate bulletin, published Thursday. Subscribe at

Copyright 2022 WFAE. To see more, visit WFAE.

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