Mild winter rolls into forecast of hot, dry summer

Published 11:00 pm Tuesday, March 20, 2012

While winter officially ended Tuesday, Pike County has had spring-like conditions for more than a week. And the outgoing winter season wasn’t very wintry, anyway.

“We had quite a warm winter this year,” said Jessica Talley, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Birmingham. “Through February, this ranks as the fifth warmest winter on record for average daily temperatures.”

For the rest of the spring and summer, Talley said Alabama is facing above normal temperatures.

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“We’ll also be looking at the possibility of below normal precipitation, so it looks like we are in for a relatively hot and dry summer,” Talley said.

Minus the possible lack of rain, the mild winter and early spring temperatures this year could mean more money for area farmers.

“We have blueberries and blackberries that will be ready for harvesting in about 30 days,” said Nick D’Andrea who owns The Berry Patch of Alabama. “That’s about a month early.”

The warmer end-of-winter temperatures allowed for early planting dates.

“They will start maturing early and will continue to mature later,” D’Andrea explained. “You will have a longer season.”

One downside to the warmer temps is that some plants need a certain amount of “chill hours,” but D’Andrea said that planters can put seeds and bulbs in the freezer for a period to “fool the seed.”

“Everything should be fine, if we get sufficient rainfall,” D’Andrea said. “As dry as it is, with the wind blowing like it is, the soil will dry up very, very quickly.”

Savvy gardeners in Troy began preparing their spring gardens more than a month ago, according to Intern Master Gardener Ebony Aelterman with the Pike County Master Gardeners Association.

“On average we are about 5 degrees warmer than 30 years ago,” Aelterman said, citing the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. “Our growing season has been extended.”

The new USDA zone map for 2012 moved Pike County from “Zone 8a” to “Zone 8b” where the average minimal temperature ranges from 15 to 20 degrees.

Aelterman said that the milder winter and early hot weather shouldn’t have damaged most plants that would normally bloom in the spring. However, due to the lack of cold weather, certain flowers may not bloom.

“I had tulips that came back this year, but they did not flower,” Aelterman said.

While folks with a green thumb may be enjoying the extended warm season, others aren’t so enthusiastic about it.

The spring fire season is underway and weather conditions are such that fires, even controlled burns, can quickly spread out of control.

In the last 30 days, the Alabama Forestry Commission reports that there have been 246 wildfires burning over 4,059 acres across the state. This past weekend, two fires burned almost 230 acres in Pike County. The first of those began as a controlled burn.

Health is also a concern as Pike County residents face what could be a brutally hot summer. Talley said the area was certain to see triple digits on thermometers.

“Once we start hitting those 90 and above temperatures, we want people to take extra precautions if they have to be outside,” Talley said. “Take frequent breaks, stay hydrated, stay under shade when you can.”