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As north country shivers, meteorologists say cold weather not all that unusual

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Sub-zero temperatures have slammed the north country this winter for 14 days as of Friday, and meteorologists predict that statistic will increase as arctic conditions remain through early February.

But while the streak of frigid air has caught even native residents off-guard following two years of relatively mild winters, temperatures recorded at Watertown International Airport show the trend isn’t unusual or record-shattering. Data from the National Weather Service going back to 1949 show this winter is ranked 18th based on the number of sub-zero days during the 55-day period from Dec. 1 through Jan. 24 — a tie with the winter of 1967-68. Ranked first is the winter of 1980-81, when 31 sub-zero days were recorded during the same period.

This week’s five-day streak of below-zero temperatures is probably not the end, as meteorologists predict the arctic blast will continue into early February. Low temperatures will hover near zero, predicted Thomas J. Paone, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Buffalo.

Based on air patterns, “it looks like this cold trend is going to continue until the end of the month and through the beginning of February,” he said. “We probably will have another good week or two” of these temperatures.

The so-called “polar vortex,” an area of low pressure centered on the Arctic Circle during the winter, is to blame for the frigid weather, Mr. Paone said.

“Occasionally, a piece of the polar vortex will break away from the polar region and slide across Canada to occasionally nip the U.S.,” he said. “We just happen to be in a pattern right now where in the Great Lakes region, the Northeast in general and part of the Midwest, we’ve been in the grips of this frigid air mass for the past couple of weeks.”

Temperatures recorded this week in Watertown have been particularly low, sinking to minus 37 degrees on Wednesday to become the lowest temperature recorded by the National Weather Service in the country. Light winds from the north and northeast force cold air to settle here, creating a “drainage effect,” he said.

That’s why “it’s been very cold for everybody to the east and south of Lake Ontario,” he said. “You’re not getting the benefit of Lake Ontario” to warm the air, “because the cold air drains southward toward the lake. The air is denser, and it tends to sink southward from higher elevations. It tends to pool together.”

This month has seen erratic temperature swings.

The 14 days of sub-zero temperatures in Watertown since Dec. 1 have been countered by 32 days when readings were 32 degrees or higher, according to data collected at the Watertown airport. On Jan. 11, for example, the maximum temperature recorded was 54 degrees. On Wednesday — just 11 days later — the temperature fell to minus 37 degrees; that’s a temperature swing of 91 degrees.

But while such a vast temperature swing is somewhat unusual, clashing temperatures are typical of upstate New York winters, Mr. Paone said.

“A lot of this is normal day-to-day, week-to-week change,” he said. “It’s what happens during the wintertime. Statistics really show that you have extremes in weather, and they tend to get averaged out over a given period of time.”

January, however, has been colder than usual. The average temperature at the Watertown airport for Jan. 1 through 23 was 17.8 — almost 2 degrees below the 30-year average of 19.6, according to the National Climatic Data Center.

Jessica L. Spaccio, climatologist for the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University, Ithaca, said this month’s cold stands out because recent winters were mild.

“Two years ago we had that really mild winter, and that was quite unusual, so I think that this definitely creates a big contrast,” she said.

It’s no surprise, then, that Watertown residents such as Benjamin T. Wormwood, who was shoveling snow Friday on the Washington Street sidewalk outside the Jefferson County Historical Society, are a bit shocked by the change.

“I think it’s getting back to where it was before, but this isn’t too bad,” he said. “It’s been pretty mild the past three years, but I remember it being really cold here in the 1990s — 20 to 30 degrees below zero. I think it’s come full circle.”

Jose A. Olvera, a health care consultant who moved from central Florida to Sackets Harbor with his family last spring, said his two young children have been fascinated by the extreme weather during their first winter here. Mr. Olvera, who was buying a sandwich Friday at Vito’s Gourmet on Public Square, said his family spent about a year preparing for the move to the colder climate.

“We’re still in the honeymoon stage,” he said.

DAYS BELOW ZERO
Subzero low temperatures were recorded on 14 days during the 55-day period from Dec. 1 through Friday at Watertown International Airport, according to the National Weather Service.
• Dec. 13: -2 n Dec. 14: -3 n Dec. 16: -19 n Dec. 17: -22 n Dec. 25: -11 n Jan. 1: -2 n Jan. 2: -9 n Jan. 3: -15 n Jan. 9: -5 n Jan. 20: -21 n Jan. 21: -33 n Jan. 22: -37 n Jan. 23, -23 n Jan. 24: -30
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