While the December 2006-February 2007 U.S. winter season had an overall temperature that was near average, a record warm January globally helped push the global average temperature for the 2006-2007 winter to the warmest on record, according to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, NC.

The winter temperature for the contiguous United States was 33.6 degrees F (0.9 degrees C), NOAA found. The 20th century average is 33 degrees F (0.6 degrees C). Statewide temperatures were warmer than average from Florida to Maine and from Michigan to Montana. Cooler-than-average temperatures occurred in the southern Plains and areas of the Southwest. December was the 11th warmest December on record. Precipitation was above average in much of the center of the nation, while large sections of the East, Southeast and West were drier than average.

NOAA found that the warmer-than-average winter temperatures in the Midwest and East helped reduce residential energy needs for the nation. Using the Residential Energy Demand Temperature Index (REDTI) -- an index developed at NOAA to relate energy usage to climate -- the nation's residential energy demand was approximately 3% lower than what would have occurred under average climate conditions for the season.

"Seasonal energy demand would have been even lower if not for February's colder temperatures," the government forecasting firm said. "For the month, temperature-related residential energy demand was approximately 6% higher than what would have occurred under average climate conditions for February."

February was 1.8 degrees F (0.9 degrees C) below the 20th century average of 34.7 degrees F (1.5 degrees C), placing it in the top third coldest Februarys in the 113-year record for the contiguous United States, NOAA said. Thirty-six states in the eastern two-thirds of the nation were cooler than average, while Texas and the 11 states of the West were near average to warmer-than-average.

While winter precipitation was above average from the Upper Midwest to New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana, winter was drier than average from the deep South to Kentucky, the Mid-Atlantic and along the Northeast seaboard states. Much of the West also was drier than average. For February, precipitation was below average in the Southeast, Northeast and Midwest regions, according to NOAA. At the end of February, water-year precipitation in Los Angeles was the lowest on record, less than 25% of normal.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 25% of the continental U.S. was in moderate-to-exceptional drought at the end of February. The most severe conditions were in southwest Texas, northern Minnesota, Wyoming and the western High Plains.

Looking globally, NOAA found that the combined global land and ocean surface temperature was the sixth warmest on record in February, but a record warm January helped push the winter to its highest value since records began in 1880 (1.30 degrees F/0.72 degrees C above the 20th century mean). The forecasting agency attributed El Nino conditions to the season's record warmth, but the episode rapidly weakened in February, as ocean temperatures in the central equatorial Pacific cooled more than 0.5 degrees F/0.3 degrees C and were near average for the month. Separately, the global December-February land-surface temperature was the warmest on record, while the ocean-surface temperature tied for second warmest in the 128-year period of record, approximately 0.1 degree F (0.06 degrees C) cooler than the record established during the very strong El Niño episode of 1997-1998.

Even more disturbing in NOAA's data was the fact that during the past century, global surface temperatures have increased at a rate near 0.11 degrees F (0.06 degrees C) per decade, but the rate of increase has been three times larger since 1976, or 0.32 degrees F (0.18 degrees C) per decade, with some of the largest temperature increases occurring in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere.

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