A Look Back to the Jan 31-Feb 3, 2011 Deep Freeze Across New Mexico
Over the four-day period from January 31st through February 3rd, a strong and complex winter storm system resulted in several days of extremely adverse weather across northern and central New Mexico and neighboring areas.  Upper level high pressure had been in place over the U.S. West Coast over much of the winter.  During the period from January 30th through February 3rd, two strong upper level disturbances deepened east of the upper high and crossed New Mexico.  These two systems were accompanied by an exceptionally strong surface front resulting in snow, wind and bitter cold temperatures across New Mexico.  The evolution of this system is shown in the water vapor satellite animation below. The first upper level low, depicted as "1", is evident over northern California on January 30th.   This system crossed New Mexico on January 31st (not shown), resulting in snow that favored the northern high terrain and the northeast plains. The second system, depicted as "2", deepened over Utah on February 1st and moved slowly south of the state by February 3rd. 

waver vapor satellite loop Jan 31 - Feb 3 


In addition to the upper level low pressure systems, a vigorous arctic cold front moved into the northeast corner of the state, then raced southward and westward reaching the continental divide by February 2 and Arizona by February 3. The image below shows surface observations and an analysis of surface temperatures from January 31 through February 2. Temperatures at Clayton started at 51 degrees and plummeted to 2 degrees above zero in the 48-hour period. 


animated graphic of surface temperatures Jan 31 to Feb 2, 2011


How is cold arctic air able to reach New Mexico?  In the graphic below, the mid-level atmospheric pattern that supported this system (green lines), transporting sub-zero surface air (pink areas) to the southern states is shown.  Wave-like pressure patterns are common in the middle and upper levels of the atmosphere, but occasionally the waves become amplified such that the north to south steering flow on the east side of the high (black arrow), extends from northern Canada to the the southern tier states. Arctic air that has been chilled over the cold, snow covered surfaces of arctic North America is transported southward.


mid atospheric pressure pattern and surface temperature


At the surface, high pressure associated with the cold air (blue H) moved toward northeast New Mexico, as low pressure (red L) was situated over Arizona.  A strong east-to-west pressure gradient resulted (green lines), supporting strong and gusty winds (yellow arrows) with north flow at Clayton, northeast flow at Tucumcari, and east flow accelerating through Tijeras Canyon at Albuquerque.  This is a classic pattern that will transport the cold air to the south and west.  It is common for these arctic cold fronts to reach the central mountains, but then stop.  In this case, the deep arctic air mass easily crossed the central mountains and eventually moved into Arizona, with colder air tracking south and west each day. 


 surface pressure pattern and wind


After the four day event, much of New Mexico had received snow, especially the northern and western high terrain and the eastern plains.  The increase in snow accumulations is shown in the modeled snow depth graphics below.  


The bitter-cold arctic air continued to moved from east to west across New Mexico and into Arizona.  Temperatures lowered each day and on the morning of February 3, the coldest air was in place across New Mexico with widespread sub-zero temperatures.  Several record low temperatures were recorded - both daily records for February 3 as well as all time low temperatures.  Gusty winds combined with the arctic air resulted in wind chills of -20 to -40 over much of the state.





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