A Look Back at the Historic, Record Cold and Winter Storms of Mid-February 2021

Written by Dustin Maddox, Meteorologist

Last updated 3/9/2021, 3:06:28 PM

A large piece of the polar vortex dipped down from Canada into most of the Lower 48 States during the middle of February bringing with it extreme and record cold temperatures to many areas. An active subtropical jet stream also brought increasing moisture into the area creating several significant and historic winter storms for the Southern Plains and Southeast states. The Northwest and Northeast were also severely impacted. 

A significant and widespread extreme cold outbreak occurred for North America during the middle portions of February with several winter storms occurring during the same time period. At one point, 170 million Americans were under some type of winter weather alert from the National Weather Service. Also, nearly 10 million customers were without power in the U.S. and Mexico at the height of the storm. The morning of February 16th, approximately 73% of the Lower 48 had measurable snowfall on the ground - the most observed since record keeping began in 2003. 

The State of Texas saw some of the most crippling effects of the Arctic temperatures and a series of winter storms added to the natural disaster. On Valentine‚Äôs Day Sunday February 14th, the entire state was under a Winter Storm Warning. Many inches of snow and sleet occurred over the next few days. The electrical grid nearly failed due to the overwhelming power demand caused by record cold temperatures, and nearly 5 million Texas customers had no power at the peak of the outage. Many customers were without power for days as widespread low temperatures dipped into the low teens and single digits, with observed wind chills well below zero. The mornings of February 15th and 16th were the coldest since 1989. Also, numerous pipe freezing and bursting occurred throughout the state and boil water notices were issued for large areas including Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. 

Other states were also hit hard as well. Significant cold, snow and ice also occurred in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky over a several day period. Central Mississippi saw a significant ice storm resulting in numerous days without power for many customers. Meanwhile to the south of the system, widespread warmth occurred for Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. In fact, a significant EF3 tornado occurred in southeast North Carolina the night of Monday, February 15th due to the unstable atmosphere. 

During the peak of the cold outbreak, many areas saw temperatures 40 to 50 degrees colder than average. From February 7-20, over 9,000 daily cold records were either tied or broken according to preliminary data from NOAA. This includes high temperatures and low temperatures. In fact, many all-time record lows were tied or set during the same period. There were 981 daily record cold highs on Feb. 14. alone, and 637 daily record cold lows on the following day, Feb. 15.

As of this writing, 82 people have been killed (70 in the United States and 12 in Mexico). It is very likely it will be the costliest natural disaster in recorded history for Texas (behind Hurricane Harvey 2017), mostly due to the damage from the blackouts. Early estimates suggest at least $195 billion dollars in damages. 77 of the 254 counties in Texas have been approved for federal disaster assistance that will assist with grants for temporary housing, home repairs, and low-cost loans.

Beginning tomorrow, multiple days of Severe weather are forecast for the Central and Southern Plains. Preparations for an active Spring Severe weather season should begin now.

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