Strange weather patterns confuse local plants

Published: Saturday, January 13, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 13, 2007 at 12:14 a.m.
At Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, the Indian azaleas and Japanese magnolias are in full bloom - heralding the cusp of a colorful spring.
One problem. It's only January.
It's been an unusually warm winter for Florida, and it's clear even the plants are confused.
In fact, the month of December brought temperatures that were significantly warmer than normal to most of the East Coast this winter - the high temperature in Gainesville on New Year's Eve was 80 degrees - but forecasters can't be sure the warm trend will continue during the remaining months of winter.
"We had a late-season El Niņo come in, and that usually brings cooler than normal and wetter than normal weather," said Pete Wolf, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jacksonville. "The only thing we've seen so far that is El Niņo-esque is the rainfall."
December saw above-average rainfall - 2.77 inches for the month, which is .21 inches above normal. But temperature-wise, the average temperature was nearly 5 degrees above normal. And while 5 degrees might not seem like a huge difference, Wolf said it indicates that the typical cold fronts which bring chilly weather our way have been few and far between.
"That's a substantially warm month," he said. "Usually you'll have warm periods and cold periods that will balance them out, but we haven't had enough cold periods to do that."
And the absence of those cold fronts is what has caused some of the March-blooming plants at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens to show their spring colors about two months early.
"The other thing that's unusual is that, in addition to warm weather tricking the plants to flower early, normal plants that would have been killed back by the weather are still in full bloom," said Don Goodman, director at Kanapaha.
Goodman said the early blooming could have consequences this year, especially if the area gets a freeze in the next few months now that the sensitive flowers are out. He said the flowers would most likely be killed by a freeze, and visitors would probably have to wait until next year to see them bloom again.
A hard freeze now "would not kill the plant at all," Goodman said. "We would just lose a year of flowering."
At the University of Florida teaching orchard, assistant professor Jose Chaparo said they are having the same problems with their peaches.
"We're pollinating peaches like mad right now," he said.
Chaparo said as long as temperatures don't hit the lower 20s, the peaches should survive, but right now everyone is just crossing their fingers.
"We don't have a crystal ball, so we have to go ahead and make the pollinations and protect them as best we can," Chaparo said.
Temperatures in the 20s are still a possibility, since winter is far from over in North Central Florida, according to Wolf at the National Weather Service. Despite the meager beginnings, he said the jet stream - which is a system of winds about 20,000 feet above the ground that controls the movement of weather fronts - seems to be positioning itself back over the eastern United States after spending much of the winter in the west.
That will mean more fronts, and more possible freezes. An arctic front that is currently in Texas will probably shift toward Florida thanks to the jet stream and should bring low temperatures in the 30s as early as Tuesday or Wednesday.
"It'll definitely be noticeable after the near-record highs we've had this week," Wolf said.
In a state where winter is a well-needed respite from mosquito bites, residents might have noticed the pesky insects haven't died off the way they normally do during a colder winter.
"Once temperatures get below freezing, that certainly tends to knock mosquitos back and cause them to go into hibernation or die in some cases," said Roxanne Connelly, an associate professor at the University of Florida's Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory in Vero Beach.
However, Connelly said an unusually warm winter doesn't necessarily mean that we will have a fierce mosquitos infestation come spring and summer.
Connelly said mosquitos live only a matter of weeks, so even though there are more mosquitos than normal right now, the mosquito population could fluctuate based on what happens in the next few months.
"It would be nice if there were a better predictor, but it just matters what happens at that particular time," she said.
As far as the forecast for the next few days, the National Weather Service expects the weekend to be sunny with fog moving in during the evening hours tonight and Sunday. Highs are forecast near 80 and lows in the mid-50s.
Alice Wallace can be reached at 374-5036 or

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