Mild weather redefines winter landscape

12-30-2011 // Juliet Eilperin and Darryl Fears

This excerpt is from the Washington Post.

At the National Arboretum, the white petals of snowdrops — normally an early spring flower — have unfurled. In Maine’s Acadia National Park, lakes still have patches of open water instead of being frozen solid. And in Donna Izlar’s back yard in downtown Atlanta, the apricot tree has started blooming.

It’s not in your imagination. The unusually mild temperatures across several regions of the country in the past few months are disrupting the natural cycles that define the winter landscape.

What began as elevated temperatures at the start of fall in parts of the United States have become “dramatically” warmer around the Great Lakes and New England, according to Deke Arndt, chief of the Climate Monitoring Branch at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center. And the Washington area is on track for its fourth-warmest year on record, along with its seventh-warmest December.

That, in turn, has created conditions in which plants are blooming out of season and some birds are lingering before moving south.

“It’s a weird kind of fall blending right into spring,” said Scott Aker, head of horticulture at the National Arboretum.

Arndt said the pattern is most pronounced in eastern Montana, northeastern Minnesota and parts of North Dakota, where December temperatures so far have averaged 10 degrees above normal. But the mild weather extends through the Great Lakes region, along with New England and the mid-Atlantic, with temperatures this month averaging between six and eight degrees above normal.

Just 19.6 percent of the continental United States is covered with snow, according to the latest snow analysis by NOAA, compared with 50.3 percent this time last year.

Scientists — as well as those who question dire global warming predictions — emphasize that one warm season should not be interpreted as a broader sign of climate change. But several researchers said the decline in cold snaps in the United States fits with a pattern of warming driven in part by human activity.

“It’s about long-term trends, and one year does not make a trend,” said Doug Inkley, a senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation. But he added, “We already, in the lower 48, have long-term warming that has had a large impact on us.”

Temperature anomalies happen for many reasons, and Arndt said some of the mild weather stems from a persistent ridge of high pressure that has settled over the eastern third of the country, bringing southern winds in many areas. But he added that the shifts in seasonality now on display are in line with the warming the United States has experienced in recent years.

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