Flashback Friday: Twin Cities experienced a February heat wave in 1981

February 15, 2019 09:52 AM

No one is likely to be in shirtsleeves riding down Washington Avenue in an open convertible anytime soon this year.

But that's just what Ed Cracraft and his two friends were doing 38 years ago this week.

On Feb. 16, 1981, the temperature in the Twin Cities reached 60 degrees - a record high for the day.

Cracraft and friends John Madson and Kevin Madeja - then members of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity at the University of Minnesota - celebrated the warm weather by going for a drive.

"We had gotten a large, framed composite picture made with photos of each of our individual members," recalled Cracraft, then the fraternity's president. "And we had gotten a call that day that the composite was ready and we could come pick it up. It was glorious out. So I figured what better way to get down there on a day like that than to take a ride in an Alfa Romeo convertible with the top down."

Along the way, the trio had their picture taken by a photographer from the Minneapolis Tribune - ending up on the front page of the next day's edition as a symbol of how Twin Cities residents were enjoying a February week when temperatures reached a high of 50 degrees or more for six straight days.

That kind of streak was also reached in 1930 and just two years ago in 2017, according to National Weather Service records.

Others were out jogging in shorts, playing touch football and tennis or just basking in the warmth in parks and on sidewalks in downtown Minneapolis.

"You don't usually get weather like that this time of year," Cracraft said. "You have to get out and enjoy it."

Indeed, temperatures in the 60s in February are a rarity in the Twin Cities. National Weather Service records show it has only happened six times, most recently just two years ago when it happened twice - on Feb. 17 and 21 of 2017.

KSTP Chief Meteorologist Dave Dahl said the biggest factor in warm weather this time of year is the amount of snow on the ground.

With 2019 already being among the snowiest Februaries on record, the chances for an extreme warmup like 1981 are pretty much zero.

"The sun right now has the same strength as mid-October sunshine," Dahl said. "And you can have 70-degree days in mid-October. The single biggest difference is that we usually have a lot of snow on the ground this time of year.

"With the kind of snow we have on the ground now, you'll rarely get a temperature above the mid- to upper 40s."

Dahl said the position of the jet stream also plays a big role in how cold or warm the air is. A jet stream that positions itself way to the south - as has occurred this year - allows colder air to push down out of Canada. 

A jet stream positioned way to the north, conversely, means warmer weather.

Still, Dahl said a stretch of February days like the Twin Cities experienced in 1981 is really rare.

"That was probably one of the weirdest ones in February I can remember since I've been at KSTP," said Dahl, who joined 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS in 1977 and has been on the air since 1979.

"I was working mornings back then. And in the afternoons, I was outside working on my car. It's pretty rare when you get the opportunity to do that in February."

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Frank Rajkowski

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