During the height of Texas’s unbearably hot summer a few months ago, I told you all how excited I was for winter. The period of June through August—when temperatures reached the triple digits and it was impossible to step outside without breaking a sweat—was a true test of my commitment to Texas residency. But I made it through, reminding myself that cooler temperatures would get here eventually. In a sense, I was right: 52 degrees Fahrenheit, which it is as I write this five months later, is certainly better than a consistent 105. But it’s still warm, all things considered. (I barely even break out that decade-plus-old North Face jacket that was supposed to be my saving grace in these months.) And this isn’t the first time Texas has seen warmer than average winter months.
The average December temperature in Texas in 2023 was about 4 to 5 degrees above the average temperatures recorded from 1991 to 2020, according to the Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. The warmest portions of the state had average temperatures near 65 degrees, while the majority of the state had average temperatures between 45 and 60 degrees. That’s high enough to make December 2023 one of the top ten warmest Decembers in Texas ever recorded, Nielsen-Gammon said. (Comparatively speaking, though, Texas didn’t even see the worst of it. The Great Lakes began the new year with the lowest amount of ice cover in five decades, following a warm December in the upper Midwest. And parts of Canada were more than 20 degrees Celsius above average.)
This is an El Niño year, which means Texas is not expected to see extreme cold, but the warmer than average December is still notable. According to Ramalingam Saravanan, the department head of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, three main factors determine winter temperature: natural year-to-year variability, which is somewhat random; warming due to climate change; and El Niño. But out of those variables, Saravanan told me, El Niño might make the state wetter but has the smallest effect on wintertime Texas temperatures, and probably the smallest impact on the conditions we are seeing.
The warm winter, of course, follows a warm year. Texas experienced some of its warmest months on record year-round. According to statistics provided by Nielsen-Gammon, January 2023 was the sixth-warmest January ever recorded in the state, with an average temperature of 51.6 degrees Fahrenheit (about 5 degrees hotter than average). July 2023 was tied for the fourth-warmest July, with an average temperature of 86.1 degrees (which is roughly 3 degrees above average). August, as Texas Monthly documented, was the second-warmest on record, behind only August 2011. The average temperature that month last year was a scorching 87.4 degrees. And we had the warmest September ever, with the average temperature at a whopping 81.7 degrees.
While December was well above average, it wasn’t the hottest ever recorded. To date, 1889 and 2021, a year of La Niña—a phenomenon that tends to shift rainfall and cooler temperatures toward the north of the U.S., leaving the South with drier and hotter conditions—have been the warmest Decembers, with average daily temperatures of about 59 degrees.
Last month alone doesn’t tell us much about global climate change. “Just as one swallow does not a summer make, we cannot make any definitive statements about climate change based on a single December month,” Saravanan said. The longer trend is conclusive, however. “Climatologists track long-term—multidecadal—trends in temperatures to draw conclusions about climate change,” Saravanan said. “The long-term trends show warming.”
In total, Saravanan said, Texas has warmed about two degrees Fahrenheit from 1895 to 2020 because of climate change. While natural year-to-year variance means not every given year will have a toasty winter, some of them—like this past December—will be rather hot, which means that my beloved North Face might never see the light of day. “Decembers will continue to get milder in the coming years, following the slow but steady trend,” Saravanan said.
In the short term, the monthly outlook for January, issued in late December by the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center, forecast that Texas’s temperatures will hover much closer to normal over the next few weeks. According to the agency’s projections, the western half of the state is more likely to have below-average temperatures, while the eastern half has equal chances of being above or below the average daily temperature. The entire state is also likely to see continued rainfall into the next few months due to El Niño, said Dev Niyogi, a professor in the department of earth and planetary sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.
So the good news for all my fellow winter people out there is that, at least in the short term, a warm December doesn’t necessarily equate to a warm January and February. And if you’re not a winter person—you should at least rejoice in the fact that current temperatures don’t figure to put a strain on the state’s fragile energy grid. (Winter storms, in general, are less likely during an El Niño year, according to Neilsen-Gammon.)
Last month’s—and the overall—high temperatures in the state throughout the year are staggering. But no matter how much you study or read about Texas’s weather patterns, the knowledge still hits differently when you walk outside. I didn’t get the winter I was hoping for; perhaps my parka will finally get an opportunity to come off the shelf later this month or next.
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