Region basks in bloomin' warmth

Flowers tricked by 10th-warmest Dec. since 1900

January 03, 2007|By Frank D. Roylance and Dennis O'Brien | Frank D. Roylance and Dennis O'Brien,Sun reporters

Crocuses and daffodils are popping through the mulch, and there are blossoms on some azaleas, rhododendrons and cherry trees. You might think spring is bursting into bloom across the region.

Twenty-four straight days of above-average temperatures, and one of the mildest Baltimore Decembers on record, have confused the dickens out of the plant world.

Plant experts say the premature growth is not a danger to the plants and trees, but early blossoms could mean a less colorful show when spring - real spring - arrives in March.

"When spring hits, they'll have spent a lot of the energy" needed for blooming, said Jon Traunfeld, a regional specialist with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. "If they look like they're in full bloom, that's going to be it for the plant."

For now, meteorologists say, we shouldn't expect this mild weather to last.

"There are signs that changes are on the horizon," said Jeff Warner, a meteorologist with the Penn State Weather Communications Group.

December started out looking like the real thing. After a wacky Dec. 1 with a high of 75 degrees at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, the area settled down with a week of colder-than-normal temperatures, with a low of 18 degrees on Dec. 9. There was even that hint of snow on Dec. 5.

But that was it.

Since then, Baltimore has enjoyed 24 straight days of above-average temperatures. Five of them reached the 60s or 70s. Only six December days were colder than the norm.

By the time it ended, the last month of 2006 averaged 5.7 degrees above the long-term average for Baltimore, making it the 13th-warmest December for the city in the 137 years since official record-keeping began, according to the National Weather Service.

Monday's low of 44 was two degrees warmer than the normal high for a New Year's Day in Baltimore.

Some plants assumed winter was over.

Peter Bieneman, general manager of Green Fields Nursery and Landscaping on Falls Road in Baltimore, said he has seen daffodils and crocuses sprouting in city backyards and blooms appearing on forsythia, cherry trees, winter jasmine plants and witch hazel.

"If we have a few days in the 50s, generally, certain plants will shoot up an inch or two inches, but there is more of it this year," Bieneman said.

Traunfeld has heard from worried gardeners.

There have been winters like this before, he said. He remembers cherry trees blooming in February 2000. Early blooming won't damage the plants themselves, nor should it increase damage from plant disease, he said. If the warm weather reduces the number of peach and cherry blossoms this spring, the trees will still produce fruit.

Fruit trees also develop far more blossoms than they need to produce a full crop.

Bill Vondrasek, chief horticulturist for the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks, agreed: "There's still going to be tons of color in the spring. I don't think anybody's going to be able to tell the difference."

State agriculture officials said it's too early to tell what effect the warm temperatures will have on fruit orchards and crops harvested in late spring, such as barley and winter wheat.

The mild weather does mean more cash in our pockets. The number of heating degree days in December was nearly 20 percent below the average for Baltimore. That should mean 20 percent less fuel burned than in a "typical" December.

It's clear we've already saved money on snow shovels, salt and overtime for highway crews, because Baltimore has seen almost no snow so far. There was a trace left by flurries and snow showers Dec. 5 and plenty in Maryland's western counties. But there has been nothing measurable yet at BWI.

Since snow records began being kept here in 1888, only 17 Decembers have ended with just a trace of snow. And there have been just six Decembers with none at all - most recently in 1991.

But the good times can't roll on forever, and real winter weather could be on the way.

"I don't think there's going to be a quick change," Warner said. "While the rest of this week should stay mild, later next week or thereafter there should be a return of colder ... more seasonable air."

"Seasonable" for this time of year in Baltimore means highs in the low 40s and lows in the 20s. But Warner said it's too soon to know precisely what's ahead.

"There are signs that cold air is starting to build more across Canada, even southern Canada ... certainly closer to the U.S. than it has been in quite some time," he said.

Eventually, that arctic air will have to break out into the U.S., Warner said.

"From a climatological standpoint, 50s at this time of year are ... 10 to 15 degrees above normal. For that to continue for any extraordinary period of time ... is very difficult. The natural progression in winter is that arctic temperatures want to push south."

But it hasn't happened since Dec. 10. Instead, the jet stream has been flowing from the southwest to the northeast, holding the arctic air at bay well north and west of the eastern United States.

Boston was more than 6 degrees above normal in December, with less than an inch of snow. It was the warmest December on record in Beantown.

"Even much of eastern Canada has been mild," Warner said.

Out West, the cold air has been able to move south into the Rocky Mountains, allowing frequent snowstorms to plow across Denver and the western Plains in recent weeks.

But by the time those weather systems reach Maryland they typically have moderated, bringing us milder air and rain, he said. "They're chilly, but it's not going to be that bitter cold."

Warner's expectations for colder weather ahead notwithstanding, the eight- to 14-day forecast for this region calls for above-normal temperatures and precipitation.

Beyond that, the official 30- and 90-day outlooks for Maryland, from the National Center for Environmental Prediction, show strong chances for above-normal temperatures, with equal chances for above- or below-normal precipitation.

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