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May 29, 2023

Texas is used to mild winters. This December was different.

Texas is used to mild winters. This December was different.

Winter got off to a balmy start in Texas, with the state experiencing its warmest December in more than 130 years.

Temperatures across Texas last month were, on average, 5 degrees to 9 degrees above normal, making it the warmest December on record since 1889, according to the state’s climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon.

“It’s like the entire state moved south for the winter,” he said in a statement.

The unusual conditions follow a broader trend of global warming and cap off a year of record heat waves, wildfires, drought and other extreme weather events made worse by climate change.

Nielsen-Gammon, also a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, said seasonal temperatures in Texas average around 2 degrees warmer now compared to the 20th century because of climate change.

“Global warming didn’t cause this December to be record-setting, but it did contribute to the margin of victory,” he said.

The 20th-century average temperature for December in Texas is 46.9 degrees, Nielsen-Gammon said. He projects that December will come in at nearly 12 degrees above the long-term average.

“Texas has never had any month more than 10 degrees above the 20th-century average until now,” he said.

December 1933 holds the official state record for coldest December, with an average temperature of 53.3 degrees.

At present, February 2017 holds the title of warmest winter month in Texas. At that time, the average temperature in the state was 58.4 degrees.

Nielsen-Gammon said final numbers are forthcoming, but added that he expects December to be a record-breaking month.

“Not only is it by far the warmest December since the beginning of comprehensive weather records, it will probably also turn out to be the warmest winter month, period,” he said.

The state climatologist said comparably warm December conditions have not been felt in Texas since 1889, though he acknowledged that records are limited and observing practices differed across history.

Still, Nielsen-Gammon said December 1889 stood out for its unusual warmth. “The first decent cold front of that month was on Dec. 29,” he said.

Warm weather in December exacerbated dry conditions across the state. At least two-thirds of Texas is currently in drought, with more than 10 percent of the state under “extreme” drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“In much of West Texas, it hasn’t rained for over two months,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “The high temperatures increase the rate of evaporation, drying out everything and leading to increased wildfire risk.”

Denise Chow is a reporter for NBC News Science focused on general science and climate change.

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