Average minimum temperatures (overnight lows) for January and February from 1911-2011 for all the locations that have hosted the Olympic Winter Games.
Credit: NOAA Climate.gov
Once again, the eastern United States has been pummeled by a winter storm that's dumped massive amounts of snow on sidewalks and roadways, many of which are still icy from the last snowstorm.
Government offices in Washington, D.C., were shuttered, as the region was blanketed by almost a foot (30 centimeters) of snow. Boston is enduring heavy snow combined with wind gusts of up to 40 mph (64 km/h), and ice-covered roadways throughout the Carolinas were littered with abandoned cars.
Revelers at the Winter Olympics, meanwhile, went shirtless at Sochi's Black Sea beaches, and some athletes were flummoxed by mountain temperatures that hovered near 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius). "The course isn't fit for an Olympics," Russian skier Anton Gafarov groused to the Wall Street Journal, referring to the cross-country course. [Sochi Photos: Winter Olympics 2014]
The difference between the two regions' weather is largely due to climate: Sochi is located at 43 degrees north latitude — the same latitude as the south of France — and enjoys a humid, subtropical climate at its lower elevations.
The daily temperatures during February in Sochi range from an average low of 37 F (3 C) to an average high of 51 F (11 C), making this winter a fairly typical one for the Black Sea resort.
So while visitors to this year's "Sloshy" Olympics may be shocked to find they're quite comfortable wearing tank tops and flip-flops, longtime residents of the city could be forgiven for dismissing all the excitement with a shrug.
Wind, snow snarl traffic
Nobody in the United States, however, seems to be shrugging off this week's wintry blasts, which have canceled airline flights nationwide, snarled traffic from South Carolina to New England and caused power outages affecting more than 770,000 people across 14 states.
At least 12 deaths have been blamed on the weather, mostly due to traffic accidents, though one man in Georgia reportedly died of hypothermia.
"This has just been a brutal winter, where it's never really gotten warmer," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said at a news conference, responding to questions about the salt shortage that's hampering road-clearing efforts up and down the East Coast.
A wild winter
Part of what has made this winter's weather so wild has been the effect of the polar vortex, which normally spins around within the Arctic Circle from west to east. When the spinning slows down, cold air can escape and move south, as has happened repeatedly in January and February.
But like the mild winter climate in Sochi, this year's cold, snowy winter in the eastern United States isn't unknown to meteorologists, since parts of the country weathered much colder weather systems that lasted much longer during the 1970s and 1980s.
"If you look at the number of days it stayed cold all day and all night, this cold wave was much briefer than past cold waves," Bob Henson, a meteorologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., told Live Science in an earlier interview, referring to a January cold snap.
The shifting Olympics
And for all the hoopla over Sochi's mild weather, some experts are predicting that climate change may force future Winter Olympic planners to seek even colder host cities.
New research has found that several of the cities that have hosted the Winter Olympics in the past — including Vancouver, British Columbia, and Squaw Valley, Calif. — will not be cold enough to host the Winter Games by midcentury, thanks to global warming.
Researchers at Canada's University of Waterloo and Austria's Management Center Innsbruck found that only 11 of the 19 former host cities would be "climatically reliable" enough to hold the competition in the coming decades.