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Missouri and Kansas both had their hottest December on record — by a long shot

A woman wearing a bright red sweatshirt and a Santa cap talks to another woman outdoors at a table where the sun is shining from the background. People can be seen in the background in coats and Santa hats. There are tables in the background with toys on them.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Pastor Mary Gilbert talks with a parent who showed up to the toy giveaway from God’s House of Deliverance and Worship Ministries International on Dec. 23 in Kansas City. Temperatures in Missouri and Kansas last December were the highest ever.

Average December temperatures jumped 2.6 degrees in Kansas, passing 40 degrees for the first time, and 2.2 in Missouri. While daily temperatures frequently swing multiple degrees because of weather patterns, such a jump in average monthly temperatures is abnormal.

Kansas and Missouri logged their warmest average December temperatures on record last month, according to data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Average temperatures over the last half of 2021 were higher than they’ve ever been in either state — and across the country. Meanwhile, despite a devastating cold snap that forced power outages across the Midwest, February’s average temperature didn’t place it in the top five coldest in either state.

The data from the Climate Divisional Dataset, which displays climate information from 1895 onward, follows research that shows while average temperatures are rising during all seasons in the Midwest — winter temperatures are climbing the fastest.

“We’re just not getting as cold as we used to, and December kind of took that and pushed it to the extreme,” said Chip Redmond, an assistant meteorologist for the Kansas State University Weather Data Library and manager of the Mesonet, a network of environmental monitoring stations across the state.

Redmond said the one-off warm month couldn’t be directly related to climate change because weather is highly variable, but it’s notable how high the average temperature rose.

According to NOAA, Kansas Decembers are getting 0.3 degrees warmer every decade while annual average temperatures are rising by 0.1 degree. There’s almost no trend in summer temperatures, said Tony Lupo, an atmospheric science professor at the University of Missouri.

The previous record for the warmest December in Kansas was set in 1957 and beat out the record before that by 0.3 degrees. In Missouri, the previous record was 0.8 degrees ahead of the one before it.

But this December shattered both records. Average December temperatures jumped 2.6 degrees in Kansas, passing 40 degrees for the first time, and 2.2 in Missouri. While daily temperatures frequently swing multiple degrees because of weather patterns, such a jump in average monthly temperatures is abnormal, Redmond said.

Lupo said the warm December and the severe cold snap that gripped the Midwest last February canceled each other out. Otherwise, 2021 could have been among the hottest years on record.

In 36 locations, Kansas broke all-time high daily temperature records for December. On Christmas, Independence reached 80 degrees.

In Kansas and Missouri, rising temperatures can increase the risk of drought, particularly in arid western Kansas where groundwater supplies are depleting. Climbing summer precipitation can put some areas at risk of severe floods, like those that devastated Missouri in 2019.

And warm weather and dried out vegetation raises the risk of wildfires and dust storms in Kansas. The all-time high average temperature in December coincided with devastating wildfires that blew across central Kansas, burning 165,000 acres.

Those wildfires were difficult to contain because they blew in during a wind storm that saw speeds as high as 100 mph. With the drought in western Kansas, Redmond said those winds can also fuel dust storms.

“Even today, this afternoon, we’re going to move a lot of dust in western Kansas,” Redmond said.

Lupo said warm winters mean less snow cover, which helps replenish soil moisture before farmers plant crops.

NOAA also tracks the number of weather disasters that exceed $1 billion in losses. Last year was the third costliest year and had the second-highest number of billion-dollar events since the agency started keeping track in 1980.

In Missouri, severe storms and flooding are the leading causes of billion-dollar events. In Kansas, it’s storms and drought.

“There’s a lot of people who seem to think climate change has not affected them, therefore they don’t really notice it,” said Donald Wuebbles, an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “But in fact, it’s affecting it through your pocketbook. You just don’t realize that your tax money is going into having to pay for all these disasters.”

This story originally published on the Missouri Independent.

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture.
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