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Forecasters see bitter cold for Wisconsin later in January due to polar vortex weakening

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National Weather Service forecast graphic 1-6-21

Southern Wisconsin has enjoyed a relatively quiet and mild start to 2021, but frigid change may be on the way later in January, according to forecasters.

As many learned during the brutal cold of late January two years ago, a weakening of the polar vortex is bad news for Wisconsin, and meteorologists have been seeing signs of that pointing toward cold outbreaks starting during the third week of January, AccuWeather said.

"Just prior to the end of December and ongoing now through Jan. 5, there has been a surge in temperatures in the stratosphere above the Arctic Circle," AccuWeather lead long-range meteorologist Paul Pastelok said.

That surge could lead to a weakening of the polar vortex around 10-14 days later, allowing frigid arctic air to escape and move south to the mid-latitudes such as the U.S.

Strong polar vortex by AccuWeather
Polar vortex by AccuWeather
Pattern Jan. 17-23 by AccuWeather

"The first push of Arctic air seems likely to begin later during the second week to early in the third week of January from part of western Canada and the U.S. Rockies," Pastelok said. "The ongoing active storm track in the southern U.S. will then help to pull the colder air through the Midwest and into the East in the wake of the storms. After the first surge of Arctic air, there are likely to be additional waves of cold air that spread from the Central states to the Eastern states during the latter part of January and into early February.”

Temperatures have ranged from 3-6 degrees above average over much of the Plains and Midwest since Dec. 1, but could tumble far below average, AccuWeather said.

For now, though, the quiet and seasonable weather is predicted to continue for southern Wisconsin, according to the National Weather Service and 27 Storm Track forecasts for the next week.

The only issue could be more dense and freezing for overnight Wednesday into Thursday.

The Weather Service said skies over Madison should be cloudy Wednesday and Thursday, mostly cloudy Friday and Saturday, and partly sunny Sunday through Tuesday, with highs near 30, 33, 29, 28, 28, 28 and 29, and lows Wednesday night through Monday night around 26, 23, 16, 16, 15 and 16.

In addition to the snow, some welcome rainfall is on the way for much of the state.

27 Storm Track meteorologist Max Tsaparis said skies over Madison should be cloudy Wednesday, mostly cloudy Thursday through Sunday, and partly sunny Monday and Tuesday, with highs near 30, 31, 29, 27, 26, 27 and 29, and overnight lows around 18, 20, 20, 17, 15, 13 and 15.

Tuesday’s high in Madison was 33 at 3:32 p.m., 7 degrees above the normal high and 18 degrees below the record high of 51 for Jan. 5, set in 2012.

Tuesday’s low in Madison was 15 at 9:28 p.m., 3 degrees above the normal low and 42 degrees below the record low of 27 below for Jan. 5, set in 1884.

No precipitation was recorded at the Dane County Regional Airport on Tuesday, leaving Madison’s January and 2021 total at 0.04 inches, 0.17 inches below normal. The meteorological winter (December through February) precipitation total (rain plus snow converted to liquid) stayed at 1.17 inches, 0.78 inches below normal.

Madison’s record precipitation for Jan. 5 is 1.11 inches, set in 1939.

Miserable driving conditions are anticipated in Southern California due to a potent storm system that is expected to drop inches of rain and snow, possibly closing roadways ahead of the holiday.

With no snow on Tuesday, Madison’s January and 2021 snow total stayed at 1.1 inches, 0.9 inches below normal. For meteorological winter, Madison has received 14.6 inches, 0.9 inches below normal. For the snow season (since July 1), Madison has received 16.9 inches, 2.7 inches below normal.

Madison’s record snowfall for Jan. 5 is 9.9 inches, set in 1929.

Madison’s official snow depth is 7 inches.


Deep freeze: Read our coverage of the early 2019 polar vortex in southern Wisconsin

Deep freeze: Read our coverage of the early 2019 polar vortex in southern Wisconsin

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