NEWS- Is it January yet? The unbearable warmness of being

Yellow forsythia around Carr's Hill and along the 250 Bypass are blooming their fool heads off. So are red-flowering quince, which usually flaunt their flowers after forsythia. So are Washington's vaunted cherry trees.

The only problem with these harbingers of spring: It's early January.  

The temperature pushed 70 over the weekend, and the wacko warm weather has some shorts-wearing residents wondering if global warming has finally caught up with us. Will Charlottesville soon be the scene of beachfront property? Or is it time to shut up and play golf?

"It could be a real problem for people who depend on fruit trees for a living," observes Marlene Condon, author of The Nature Friendly Garden, who acknowledges enjoying the warm days of December and January, even though, "I know I shouldn't."

Colder temperatures in the offing shouldn't hurt the forsythia, or the hyacinths and daffodils pushing through the earth. "Bulb plants are pretty well adapted," says Condon. "I've had daffodils blooming in snow. They tend to survive." 

Less adaptable to unseasonable warmth are Albemarle's apple and peach trees. "It's kind of got us in a state of fear," says Tim Henley of the orchard family. "We don't want to see swollen buds," which a deep freeze will kill. He hasn't noticed swelling  yet, but notes, "We've gone about 18 years without any substantial loss from freezing in the spring, so we're kind of due."

He adds, "Fruit trees do need a certain number of below freezing days." 

So do ski resorts. Wintergreen shut down its slopes January 8-10 to take advantage of colder temps to make snow. With a $5-million snow-making system, "In the low 20s we can make a lot of snow," says Wintergreen spokesman Sarah Lovejoy. 

During the winter's balmier weather last week, Wintergreen had only three slopes open. "The nice thing about Wintergreen is there are so many amenities," says Lovejoy. "The golf course is doing great, the spa is doing great. And there's a lot to be said for skiing in a sweatshirt."

And to lure skiers, Wintergreen has been offering discounted lift tickets and a ski/golf twofer: Ski in the morning and use the lift ticket for greens fees at Stoney Creek. "That's a good price for greens fees," says Lovejoy.

Such deals are unlikely to last with this week's colder temperatures, which have the ski resort optimistic about a socko Martin Luther King Jr. birthday weekend and January/February. "It's not a disaster yet," says Lovejoy. "There's a lot of pent-up demand. People are ready for the slopes."

McCormick Observatory, the official long-term climate station for Charlottesville, recorded temperatures about six degrees above normal for December, and 14 degrees above normal for the first week of January.

"It's not anyone's imagination that it's been toasty," says Jerry Stenger at the State Climatologist Office. However, the halcyon days are still running well below record-setting range.

Stenger cites a recent high of 67 degrees. "That can't hold a candle to 77 degrees in 1907" on the same date, he says. 

So is Al Gore right? Has global warming hit home? Meteorologists and climatologists remain divided about using the GW-words, and some blame El Niño for heating things up.

"Globally averaged temperatures have been going up the past few decades," says Stenger. But across Virginia, "We don't see any significant trend. There's no reason to think this an obvious manifestation of global warming."

Stenger pins the eerie warmth on an unusually configured jet stream that's heating things up in the east while dumping tons of snow in the west in places like Denver. "It's not terribly unusual," he says. 

He's gives less credit to El Niño's warm Pacific currents. "Everything in the atmosphere is connected," says Stenger. "The El Niño conditions are not particularly strong," particularly for temperatures in Virginia.

"There's a tendency for Virginia to see winter temperatures that start above normal and switch," he says.

And when the jet stream shifts, it happens quickly. Warns Stenger, "There's a lot of cold air up there with our name on it."

Forsythia ignores the calendar and puts out its golden showers of blossoms about six weeks early.


1 comment

Finally, a weather article that's fun and thoughtful! This is the kind of story that could bring a smile to somebody's face even if they were hanging out in a gloomy hospital! Great writing and reporting.