NEWS- Into the mild: Businesses adjust to near-record highs

Diners enjoy the warm weather on Christian's Pizza's Downtown Mall patio on Wednesday, January 10. The high temperature that day was 65 degrees, only four degrees short of the record set in 1930.

Short sleeves and sunglasses were all the rage last week as January felt decidedly unseasonable, with temperatures reaching into the 70s and nary a cloud in the sky. For those who wondered, "Is this some kind of record?" the answer, according to UVA climatologist Jerry Stenger is "No, but it's gotten close.

"We've been running about 30 degrees above the long-term average," Stenger says. "Monday [January 9] we had a high of 72 degrees, only one degree short of the record set in 1937. So it's no misperception; it's definitely been warmer than usual."

What's got the mercury rising? According to Stenger, it's an aberration in the current of warm air running west to east over North America known as the jet stream.

"We're currently under a ridge in the jet stream, and there's a trough in the west, where they're having colder-than-normal temperatures," he explains. "Normally, you see a ridge in the west and a trough in the east. That's why you see jacket weather in San Francisco at the same time it's parka weather here, even though we're at relatively the same latitude."

 The hiccup in the jet stream is part of the reason why Charlottesville has experienced so little snowfall this winter.

"For there to be snow," says Stenger, "there has to be cold air, but there also has to be moisture. Most of our cold air comes from the northwest down from Alberta, Canada, and most of the moisture has been wrung out by the time it gets to us, because there aren't many big bodies of water in between.

"On average, by the end of December we've had 3.5 inches of snow," says Stenger. "To this point, we've had only 0.3 inches. However, January and February are traditionally our big snow months."

Warm temperatures and no snow have meant more diners for some Downtown Mall restaurants. 

"We've definitely seen an increase in our dinner crowds," says Dan Epstein, co-owner of Eppie's. "When it's down in the teens, people come out less, and really bad weather hurts. So this is nice."

Still, Epstein confesses he didn't anticipate the warm weather.

"Last year, we paid the city about $3 per square foot per month for the season to do our patio seating," he says. "We didn't do it this year, and now we certainly wish we had."

Although they're normally desolate brown landscapes this time of year, golf course business has also benefited from the balmier conditions.

"Usually, we see only a few hundred rounds for the whole winter," says Jeff Beeler, the pro at Old Trail Golf Club in Crozet, "but we project we'll have 600 rounds in January alone. That's absolutely due to the warm weather." 

But all the unseasonable fun may soon give way to more traditional powdery play. On Tuesday morning, January 15, downtown Charlottesville experienced a minute-long flurry, and an overnight snowfall hours earlier in Nelson County came just in time for Wintergreen Resort.

"We had 1.5 to 2 inches of snowfall," said Wintergreen spokesperson Anne Marie Jones Tuesday morning. "Our slopes are covered. I hate to say it, but kids are even skipping school to come snowboard today. Our Martin Luther King weekend is going to be gorgeous, and we expect to have a big crowd."

The white stuff comes at a time when Wintergreen's slopes were almost green, as artificial snow had a difficult time retaining its flaky form in the unseasonable heat.

"When we had our warmup, that was the case," says Jones, "but now we've got eight trails covered in anywhere from 10 to 32 inches."

Should Wintergreen and other businesses dependent on cold weather brace for warm winters like this in the future due to global warming? Stenger says he isn't sure.

"The thing about global warming is that it has to be warming up globally, not just where you are," says Stenger. "We're seeing colder-than-normal temperatures in the west, which wouldn't suggest a long-term global trend. Is it global warming? The answer is that we don't have the information yet to reasonably conclude one way or the other."