Don't bother trying to find out what the official low temperature was in the Virgin Islands on any particularly chilly night in the last couple of weeks. The answer is the same, no matter what the date: There wasn't any.
That's because "there is no official climatic data recording station in the Virgin Islands," Henry Laskosky, lead forecaster with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in San Juan, explained.
At the St. Thomas and St. Croix airports, automated observation systems record temperatures and other weather data for transmission to the NOAA station in San Juan. However, hardly anybody spends their nights at an airport, and the temperatures there, at or near sea level, are likely to be significantly higher than than those at the higher elevations where much of the population resides.
But unofficially, there's no question: It has been bone-chilling cold lately, even for January, in the American Paradise.
On St. John, Bordeaux Mountain resident Fred Trayser recalled, "Last year we had one very cold, short period of two to three days." But, he said, in the five years he has lived there, "this is the longest sustained period."
Naturalist Will Henderson, who also lives on the mountain, has been keeping his own records for years. This month, he recorded lows of 62 on Jan. 17 and 18, and of 63 on Jan. 16, 19 and 20.
"Normally, I'm 5 degrees lower than sea level," he said. His home is about a thousand feet up, "and that corresponds to what they normally cite as one degree per 200 feet of elevation." He suggested that "it is probably more significant that the daily highs dropped down" for that period. He recorded maximums of just 69 degrees for Jan. 16, 17 and 19.
Henderson also cited the winds of that period. "Up on the mountain, it was roaring," he said. "My anemometer [a device to measure wind speed] blew away, and I haven't replaced it."
On St. Croix, Sally Lawaetz, whose late mother-in-law collected weather data for NOAA for many years, said the thermometer at her home on the island's West End "has gotten down to 62, with a couple days of 63 and 64" this month. That's nowhere near a record, though, she said.
"We had 54 degrees once, about 20 years ago," she recalled. "You could see your breath. It was delightful!"
Family patriarch Frits Lawaetz recalled that once the thermometer at his property showed a sudden drop to 41 — the same day hail was reported on St. Croix. "But that was just a fluke that quickly passed," he said.
Atop St. Thomas's Crown Mountain, farmer Michael Bryan is still "wearing long-sleeved shirts to work every morning," his wife, Tracey, said. There's no thermometer up there, she said, but "this is the coldest it's been in a very long time." Fortunately, she added, "the chickens have thick feathers."
Edie P. Johnson, who lives in upper Contant on St. Thomas, said the thermometer outside one of her windows showed the temperature in the mid-60s one recent night, "but the wind chill factor was in the 50s."
Over the Martin Luther King Day weekend, Jan. 14-17, in addition to experiencing plummeting temperatures, the whole territory was buffeted by high and howling winds. The Water And Power Authority attributed a series of outages on St. Croix and St. Thomas to these winds and reported a high number of trouble calls about trees blown into power lines. Four American Eagle planes made emergency landings in the middle of the night of Jan. 15 at the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport after having been diverted from flight paths elsewhere in the northeastern Caribbean.
Seas have smoothed out in recent days, "but boy, are those ferry seats cold!" commented one commuter who typically wears a skirt and regularly catches the first boat out of Cruz Bay at 6 a.m. For those in the mountains on St. Thomas's North Side, there's been a similar shock on early morning trips to the bathroom. "This is why I left Chicago!" one longtime transplant wailed.
"It's been that way over the entire Eastern Caribbean," the National Weather Service's Laskosky said. He explained that the phenomenon was due to "a long-wave trough" bringing Arctic air into the region.
"There's a deep low-pressure system anchored over the northeastern United States that extends all the way to the Caribbean," he said recently. "And a series of short- wave troughs that have been developing off New England are making the long-wave trough deeper and deeper."
According to St. John's Henderson, "The unusual part was the organization of the front. The low that hit us was a solid six days — that's a very long front."
Laskosky said the San Juan station "receives reports from a number of volunteers in the Virgin Islands, sometimes e-mail, sometimes in the regular mail, several days old." However, he said, "no ongoing records are being kept."
The only written records he could find covered the period of 1951-1960 or, in some cases, to 1965. They reported temperatures on a monthly basis. Here are some of his findings within those time spans:
– The lowest figure he found for the territory was recorded at the former Anna's Hope Experiment Station on St. Croix. It was 49 degrees, identified as a 30-year record for January. From the same source he found a low of 52 recorded for February.
– For Charlotte Amalie, the January low of 65 for the period was recorded as the lowest in 37 years; the February low was 63. For the Harry S Truman Airport (now Cyril E. King), the FAA recorded a 12-year low of 63 for January, and lows of 65 for February and 64 for March.
– For Cruz Bay, a January reading of 59 was noted as a 14-year low; other lows were 60 for February and again 60 for March.
– For Alexander Hamilton Airport (now Henry E. Rohlsen), the FAA recorded lows of 61 for January, 62 for February and again 62 for March.
Nowadays, the airport automated observation systems, operated jointly by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Weather Service, transmit temperature, air pressure, wind and rainfall data 24 hours a day to the San Juan station. There it is added to the pool of regional data that, in turn, is transferred by computer daily to the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.
"Every day, every station across the country dumps its data to this center for archiving," Laskosky said.
Repeated attempts to reach the NCDC records section by telephone connected with an automated system that ultimately led to a cut-off and busy signal. The center's web site (www.ncdc.noaa.gov) lists temperature extremes for the 50 states but not for the Virgin Islands and other territories.
Laskosky said the cold weather the region has been experiencing this year "is probably related to La Niña," the global system that has overtaken the global warming effects of El Niño over the last couple of years. La Niña "is a result of extremely cold water surfacing off the coast of Ecuador and Peru and in the Pacific," he said.
The Caribbean, of course, has been getting only a fringe effect. Last weekend, ice storms swept south to north on the U.S. mainland, from Alabama to the Carolinas, causing widespread power outages that left many homes without heat as well as power. Record snows followed, and more ice storms are predicted for the weekend to come.
Meantime, California has been experiencing an unusual winter drought, Laskosky said. And St. Thomas resident Michael Friebus, who has family in Johannesburg, South Africa, said the current summer season there (seasons are reversed in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres) has brought both extremely high temperatures and severe drought.
With regard to the Caribbean chill, Laskosky said a few days ago, "I don't see it being changed any time in th
e next week." As Virgin Islanders know, weather forecasting is an inexact science. But the cold snap seems to have snapped, for the territory, at least.