POSTED ON FEBRUARY 29, 2012:
The Winter That Never Was
Good or bad, it depends how you look at it.
Not getting a lot of use out of your new winter coat? Tulsans have been bracing for the cold weather for months, but by now, it is a thing of the past.
Spring is only three weeks away, though temperatures have spiked into the 70s, teasing us last month with the fairest season at a time of year when Oklahoma weather is usually at its most frigid.
In February, about half of the days that month were above the historical averages, while January was even warmer. According to the National Weather Service, January '12 was the ninth warmest on record.
This March, we expect to see more warm days as spring heads our way. In Tulsa, average temperatures start out in the upper 50s and warm up to upper 60s toward the end of the month.
But we haven't seen as much rain, snow or ice this season either. The average precipitation for January in T-Town is 1.66 inches, though this past January only ranked as the 24th rainiest, with less than an inch of rain (0.61 inches).
The average high in January is 46 degrees with an average low of 25 degrees; the averages for February are 52 degrees for a daytime high and 30 degrees as a low. But this year, we've seen the thermometer inch up into the 70s days in a row. The warmest January on record occurred only six years ago in 2006.
"We're on pace for the eighth warmest winter [on record] and we'll probably finish in one of the top 10 warmest winters," said Steve Amburn, science officer for the National Weather Service in Tulsa. "But it's not the record."
Additionally, a half-inch of snow fell in January, though the average snowfall for the coldest month of the year is about 2.7 inches.
But snow is a complicated mix of more variables than even the exalted National Weather Service can provide, so we looked at the "costs" of "winter".
After the blizzards of mid-February 2011, the city of Tulsa planned ahead by ordering extra rock salt and gravel on the prospect of this being a similar winter. T-Town has stocked up on 14,500 tons of salt for slippery road situations.
Floyd Emery, city of Tulsa streets department employee, said the city's only used about 1,397 tons of salt this year thus far. "If we don't have to use it this year, it will hold over and be usable next year," Emery said. "So that would save the city some money in that aspect and we'd be able to [use it] someplace else."
"Save the city some money" may be a bit of an understatement. Though the fiscal year budget doesn't end until June 30, the costs associated with last year's winter cleanup completely dwarf what has been spent thus far. Last year, the city spent $690,004.95 on winter-related costs; to date, for FY2012, the city has spent $97,747.53.
Let's call it an investment for next winter, and move on.
While this warm weather may be saving the city on rock salt and cash (and it's also nice for cartwheels in the sunshine), it could ultimately lead to outsized insects and troubles with crops. With the advent of a too-early spring, Oklahoma growers could lose some fruit, grains and even pecans.
Mike Spradling, president of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, owns pecan orchards and knows from experience how an early spring can affect budding trees. "It's extremely early this year," he said. "Here it is still in February and it's 70 degree temperatures -- prolonged 70 degree temperatures, not just a freak one day deal. So these plants are going to start waking up and wanting to expand and grow and absorb that sunlight."
If the temperatures stay continually high, plants will bud early this year, which Spradling said could be very damaging.
In the past, he's experienced early budding and lost everything after several 25-degree nights late in the season.
Pecan trees are some of the last to come out of dormancy, but even they are susceptible. "We're still in pretty good shape for a while," he said. But once plants start blooming, any big dip in temperatures could kill young buds and plants.
Even if they do, it's still not ideal. According to Spradling, plants need a certain amount of cold days. It makes them heartier. "You would almost think that there's no way we can go on through the rest of this winter without some hard freezing to occur," he said.
But in Oklahoma, stranger things have happened.
Spring plants won't be planted for several more weeks, so those have a better chance of avoiding the effects of these abnormal weather conditions. Winter plants and some trees are most at risk, especially fruit trees. Pecan trees have a chance to come back from damage, but "on fruit trees, that's not the case," Spradling said. "If they lose that bloom, it's over with."
Wheat can also be affected, which is really starting to grow due to the warm weather. "As it starts to grow again, the composition changes and then it's more susceptible to damage."
Last year, Tulsa's weird weather killed off many blackberry canes (the vine-like bushes that produce blackberries). The extreme cold last February killed off dozens of blackberry plants at Owasso Christmas Tree and Berry Farm, according to the farm's owners, Bill and Paula Jacobs.
The couple told UTW last spring that their crop was much smaller than average after the blizzards last year froze many blackberry canes above the snow line. The crop came later than usual, too, though Bill Jacobs chalked part of the loss to the tender nature of the blackberry. "A lot of things affect the crop. They're a delicate, tender berry," Bill said last April.
Other plants like wheat and canola are also in danger, said Chad Godsey, cropping systems specialist and assistant professor at Oklahoma State University. "They may be a little more susceptible to freeze damage if we were to get a late March or early April freeze. But really, that risk is always out there for that late freeze," Godsey said.
Godsey said there's a "definitely-maybe" chance of a freak, late-winter freeze. And that could be a problem "since we are a couple weeks ahead of normal, growth-wise," he said.
"The weather doesn't have a very long memory so things can change very quickly and in a matter of a few weeks, we can have a whole different routine... We need to get past the next few weeks," Amburn said. "A lot of our biggest snows have occurred in March and things could change in a hurry and we could get a late snow."
But a late snow could be a blessing.
"Usually the wheat crop" is most in danger of being affected by a late freeze, Godsey said.
"But you could include all small grains, they like to have a little bit more time to go dormant in the winter time. We haven't seen that this year," said Wilbert Hundl of the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
"The big thing now is that we actually have some soil moisture in most parts of the state," Godsey said. This is really good news for crop production. It doesn't matter that we haven't had a lot of snow because "most areas of the state have received normal amounts of precipitation whether it was snow or rain."
"We have had some precipitation here in the last few weeks, with a little bit of snowfall up in the north central part of the state, which has helped a little bit of topsoil moisture ratings," Hundl said. "[We] haven't really replenished much subsoil moisture, so we've got to get some subsoil moisture in there for the spring crop planting, which is coming up in the next month or so."
"Of course, we're starting off better than we were last year at this time, as far as having a lot of soil moisture stored," Godsey said.
Finally, will our mild winter mean more pesky insects this summer? "We've had very short cold spells... so a lot of the insect population hasn't been decreased as much as they normally would during the winter months," Godsey said. "There may be potential for maybe some earlier infestations in certain crops with certain insects." Not necessarily more -- just earlier.
Godsey then summed up Oklahoma's nature as a whole when speaking of the insect population: "Every year it seems to be a different problem. I guess out of normal is really normal here."
Though crops and insects may react unfavorably to the winter warmth, Amburn says that summer has a mind of its own and likely won't be influenced by the above average winter. "We've looked back historically and found that one season doesn't have a lot of influence on the next season," he said. "A warm winter doesn't necessarily mean a hot summer... I expect that as hot as last summer was, given it was a record, it's not often that you have one record after the other and it will probably not be as hot."
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