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Goodbye, January and cold, snow, smog, ice

Published: Thursday, Jan. 31 2013 5:50 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns shivered through the month of January, dug themselves out of walloping snowstorms and, along the Wasatch Front, people held their breath as the worst inversions in nearly 10 years took hold.

Hello, February, thank goodness you are here.

Not only did residents have to deal with the post-holiday malaise and strained credit cards as January unfolded, but Mother Nature gripped the state with record cold. Multiple records in multiple years were shattered and a new low for the high temperature was tied in Fillmore from 91 years ago — with Jan. 20 seeing it climb to only 13 degrees.

"It's been a crazy month as far as weather goes," said Nanette Hosenfeld, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.

The agency reports that as of Wednesday, the average temperature for January this year was 18.8 degrees, while it is typically 29.5 degrees. The lowest recorded average temperature happened in 1949, when it was a frigid 11.5 degrees.

Salt Lake City had multiple days of record low temperatures during January; Cedar City dipped down to minus-17, Bountiful dropped to minus-3 and Price came in at minus-8.

In mid-January, it got even worse. Brigham City on Jan. 14 had a new record low temperature of minus-19 — breaking the previous one set in 1947 of minus 10.  On that same day, Pineview Dam reached minus-22, tying a record set in 1964.

"It's been a really cold month," Hosenfeld said. "It will probably go down as the fourth or fifth coldest January on record, largely due to the inversion."

January's frigid cold helped create the perfect conditions for a punishing stretch of inversions that would not let hold of much of the state.

Bo Call, manager in the air monitoring section of the Utah Division of Air Quality, said there were 22 days in Salt Lake and Davis counties when residents were told to shut down their wood-burning stoves or fireplaces, as well as limit driving. On another day, the division put residents in the same area on a "voluntary alert."

It was nine long days — Jan. 1-9 — when the month's first inversion settled in, Call said. Then, a monster storm swept in Jan. 10-11, and while Wasatch Front residents had some respite from the inversion, they were left coping with shoveling out of driveways and sliding off roadways during an event significant enough to be ominously named Gandolf.

That storm dumped a couple of feet of snow in some valley locations but, overall, this month's snowfall has pounded the Salt Lake City International Airport. It received 9.3 inches during Sunday's storm — a record for that date. Since October, it has piled up 52.4 inches of snow, 18.1 inches above normal for late January, according to airport spokeswoman Barbara Gann.

The heavy storms — particularly Gandolf — left cold behind.

"We then went back to the inversion," with mandatory no-burn days lasting from Jan. 15-27, just in time for the next storm to drop in, Call recalled.

Cold temperatures have helped to cast a freeze over the Great Salt Lake, Call added, which simply aggravates the inversion conditions.

January was somewhat unique in that storm systems typically punch through the area every four or five days, cycling the air and pushing out inversions that may be building. This last month, however, storms appeared to follow about a two-week pattern, allowing inversions to dig in their heels.

"In the two main inversion events, there were really cold temperatures," Hosenfeld said. "The colder it gets in the valley bottoms, the stronger storm you need to get rid of the inversion."

Of course, aside from the cold and the snow and the smog and the fog that ruled in January, don't forget the crowning event of the ice storm — which Hosenfeld said was the most unusual weather event of the month.

The meteorologist almost sounded forlorn when she said she missed it — she was in Oklahoma — but she's been regaled with stories of something that has only happened nine times at the airport in any measurable quantity.

The rain on Jan. 24 fell through warm air and hit the cold air of the inversion. By the time it landed on streets and cars and people, it became little slivers of ice painting everything dangerously slick.

On I-15 along the Wasatch Front and in neighborhoods in multiple communities, the going speed was dead slow and that seemed too fast.

Multiple pedestrians ended up in hospital emergency rooms from falls, while scores of others stubbornly nursed bruises and cuts in the privacy of their homes.

Weather watchers dubbed the ice storm the fourth largest of its kind at the Salt Lake City International Airport, which had to shut down its runways for three hours — an operational anomaly.

Gann said it may have been the first time in decades that a freezing rain led to the simultaneous closure of all the airport's runways, although the actual airport terminals never closed.

Added Hosenfeld: "It is amazing what a little bit of ice can do. Until you've gone through one, you can't really appreciate the large impact ice has."

This weekend, the Salt Lake City area appears intent on diving into a zone that January saw very little of — normalcy.

High temperatures will hover around average — low 40s — and stay that way throughout Saturday and Sunday. Normal, after January, seems like a break.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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