Chill in the air overdue for Sacramento region

Marilyn Barcala, 2, of Dixon, studies the ice Saturday at Sacramento’s downtown skating rink with a little support from her mother, Jillian Stevens. The same weather pattern blamed for California’s drought is now delivering chilly air.
Marilyn Barcala, 2, of Dixon, studies the ice Saturday at Sacramento’s downtown skating rink with a little support from her mother, Jillian Stevens. The same weather pattern blamed for California’s drought is now delivering chilly air. lsterling@sacbee.com

Temperatures have descended into the 30s throughout the Sacramento Valley for the first time this winter, and many folks think that’s just fine.

After a long year of drought and heat, the cold is welcome for people yearning for that shiver that’s supposed to come with the holiday season.

“It makes it feel like Christmas, especially if you’re from Alaska,” said Sean Raffuse, a Davis resident who hails from Anchorage. He was ice-skating with his two young daughters Saturday at the downtown Sacramento skating rink on K Street. “I just wish it would snow.”

Just a block away, Eunice Hands, 60, spent over an hour waiting for a bus in the cold. The temperature didn’t bother her, but the wait did. She was trying to get to Mercy Hospital to have a painful toothache investigated.

“I love the cold weather,” she said.

The National Weather Service is forecasting overnight low temperatures to remain in the 30s in Sacramento through Friday, and perhaps beyond. It was enough to leave a layer of frost over much of the metro area early Saturday.

Temperatures in outlying areas have been much colder, such as in South Lake Tahoe, where the airport reported a low Saturday morning of 11 degrees. In Truckee, depending on where it was measured, the temperature reached between 6 and 15 degrees.

None of these temperatures are cold enough to set records. Nor are they unusual for this time of year.

“People don’t realize this is fairly typical, and we should have had some frost already by now,” said Brooke Bingaman, a forecaster at the weather service office in Sacramento. “It’s toward the end of December, and we’re just now starting to get our first frost.”

The cold has descended on California for the same reason the state has been locked in a serious drought for three years. A high-pressure ridge has again established itself off the California coast.

Instead of allowing storms to reach California, it’s looping far north into Canada, then plunging straight south again across California’s eastern edge.

“The way the air is moving, it’s now grabbing cold air form Canada and dragging it down into Northern California,” Bingaman said

The low temperature Sunday morning in Sacramento is predicted to reach 33 degrees. Roseville and Folsom are both expected to reach 34 degrees.

The blast of cold air will do nothing to disrupt a much larger weather trend that imposed itself this year. In California as a whole, and Sacramento in particular, 2014 will rank as the warmest year ever recorded.

The annual average temperature for 2014 in California is predicted to be 60.9 degrees, said Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. That is a full 1.4 degrees above the old record, which was set in 1934.

“It’s going to smash the old record,” Patzert said. “That’s not just breaking the record. That’s astronomical.”

The excessive heat was also caused by that coastal high-pressure ridge, which sat in place for most of 2014 and kept storms from reaching the state during much of last winter. Temperatures were also aggravated by El Niño, the rise in water temperature in the equatorial Pacific Ocean that often disrupts weather throughout North America.

Although El Niño still has not officially taken effect, it has altered weather patterns enough to push more warm air north from South America, Patzert said. This caused the ocean off the California coast to run warmer than normal this summer, which helped shut down the Delta breeze that normally keeps Sacramento cool in the evenings. It also brought relatively rare monsoonal storms to California and caused several hurricanes in Mexico.

“The other thing is, all this heat has really just supercharged the drought,” he said. “The drought wouldn’t have been this bad if it hadn’t been so warm.”

The record warmth this year is not related to climate change, Patzert said. The increased temperatures this year eclipse the slow march of climate change by several orders of magnitude, he said.

“If somebody told you this was due to global warming, that’s not true,” Patzert said. “This is definitely natural variability of some kind.”

The temperature increase due to climate change over the past 140 years, he said, is about 0.012 degrees Fahrenheit per year. So to see a 1.4-degree increase in just one year suggests something else is going on.

“It’s a monster record, which, even with global warming, will be hard to touch again for many decades,” he said.

The forecast may shift next week, according to the Climate Prediction Center, a branch of the National Weather Service. It projects a return to warmer and wetter conditions, at least for far Northern California, starting around Jan. 4.

In the meantime, the cold helped Raffuse, the Alaska native, feel a little bit more at home. It also gave him an opportunity to treat his two young children to ice skating for the first time. The rink in downtown Sacramento is created artificially each winter, as a seasonal attraction, by flooding an urban plaza and then freezing the water. It costs $8 per person to take a spin on the ice.

Truman, 4, and Masie, 2, both wore big grins after sliding around on the ice for a while.

“They did great, and they were in great spirits. I was happy about it,” Raffuse said.

Call The Bee’s Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.