El Nino brings warm winter to North, Midwest


Published: Thursday, January 4, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 3, 2007 at 10:43 p.m.

CHICAGO — Crocuses are pushing out of the ground in New Jersey. Ice fishing tournaments in Minnesota are being canceled for lack of ice. And golfers are hitting the links in Chicago in January.

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The Associated Press

Much of the Midwest and the East Coast are going through a remarkably warm winter, with temperatures running 10 and 20 degrees higher than normal in many places.

"I'm not complaining. I can take this," said Rudolph Williams, a doorman in New York City who normally wears a hat this time of year but stood outside in 50-degree weather with his shaved head uncovered. "The Earth is recalibrating itself: Last year, we had a cold winter, and it's balancing itself out now. In January, it feels like the middle of April."

New York City saw a November and December without snow for the first time since 1877. And New Jersey had its warmest December since records started being kept 111 years ago.

Maria Freitas said that not only are crocus bulbs blooming in her Rahway, N.J., backyard, but the asparagus is three inches high.

"They think it's spring. They're so confused," she said.

Meteorologists say the warm spell is due to a combination of factors: El Nino, a cyclical warming trend now under way in the Pacific Ocean, can lead to milder weather, particularly in the Northeast; and the jet stream, the high-altitude air current that works like a barricade to hold back warm southern air, is running much farther north than usual over the East Coast.

The weather is prone to short-term fluctuations, and forecasters said the mild winter does not necessarily mean global warming is upon us. In fact, the Plains have been hit by back-to-back blizzards in the past two weeks.

"No cause for alarm. Enjoy it while you have it," said Mike Halpert, head of forecast operations at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center.

Whatever the explanation, Amanda Dickens was enjoying the weather Wednesday at Baltimore's Inner Harbor as she ate lunch outside with her husband and 3-year-old son. Temperatures there were expected to reach 60 degrees.

At the Marovitz Golf Course in Chicago near Lake Michigan, 30 people teed off between 9 a.m. and noon, when there are usually no golfers at all this time of year.

Leonard Berg, the course's superintendent for maintenance, gestured to the fairways with pride: "Normally this time of year there would be a brown singe to it. Look at that nice emerald green."

At New York's Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the "everblooming" cherry trees are flowering more fully than usual, producing thousands of blooms instead of hundreds.

But the mild weather is also hurting some businesses and events.

In Minnesota, where a water skier in a wetsuit was recently seen on the Mississippi River near St. Paul, ice fishing tournaments have been canceled. The U.S. Pond Hockey Championships — scheduled for Jan. 19-21 in Minneapolis — have only a 50-50 chance of being held.

And organizers of the St. Paul Winter Carnival, scheduled to begin late this month, said the ice is not thick enough to harvest into 1,400 blocks for the ice maze. They may have to switch to plastic blocks.

"It would give the effect, but it's not exactly Minnesota winter," said Mary Huss, a spokeswoman for the event.

In Ohio, Dan Motz said sales for his firewood business in a Cincinnati suburb are down about 25 percent.

In Maryland, buds are appearing on apple and peach trees, raising the prospect of a poor spring crop if a sudden cold snap kills the blossoms. A gradual cooldown would minimize any damage.

In New Jersey, the Mountain Creek ski resort in Vernon is struggling to open more trails. There haven't been many nights cold enough to make snow.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed that the cold weather will get here soon," resort spokeswoman Shannon McSweeney said. "Either that, or we're sending trucks out to Colorado to steal some of their snow."

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