Is this a historic winter?

Cold days are not over for the area. A few more light freezes are expected.

Icicles melt in the morning sun as they hang from a peach tree in the UF Horticultural Sciences Fruit Teaching Orchard on Friday.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer
Published: Monday, March 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 28, 2010 at 9:46 p.m.

It's been a record-breaking winter to remember this year, with snow showing up around the South, including in Marion County, and the most consecutive days of freezing temperatures ever recorded in Gainesville since the late 1800s.

The state estimates hundreds of millions of dollars in crop damage to greens, tomatoes and strawberries due to the repeated days of below-normal temperatures, while customers locally can attest to the freeze with energy bills that rose as thermometers fell. Gainesville Regional Utilities reported a 46 percent increase in natural gas sales this January compared with last year and a 13 percent rise in electric retail sales.

And the National Weather Service in Jacksonville predicts the area hasn't seen its last freezing temperature, with a few more light freezes expected this month.

Some forecasters nationally have already said this winter will go down in history as one of coldest in decades in the U.S.

So has this been the most damaging winter ever for the state and North Florida?

Meteorologists with the Weather Service in Jacksonville won't go that far.

But, they said, it's likely to end up among the top five coldest on record for Gainesville during January and February.

Figures for February were being completed Sunday, according to the Weather Service. But the average high and low recorded for this February in Gainesville fell well below historic averages. The average high was 62 degrees compared with a historic average high of 69 while the average low was 38 compared with a historic average low of 45. Nine days in February, minimum temperatures hit freezing or lower. The average temperature for the month was 49.7 compared with the historic average of 57 degrees.

February's readings come after the bone-chilling temperatures, at least for Florida, that were set in January.

Temperatures were below freezing for 13 straight days from Jan. 2 through Jan. 14, a local record for Gainesville since record-keeping began in 1891, according to the Weather Service. On Jan. 11, the low of 17 degrees set a record for the area for that day. January had 15 days when the minimum temperature was 32 or below. Added to the nine freezes in February and two in December, that equals 26 freezing days so far this winter.

Average daily highs and lows for January were below historic averages. The average high for the month was 62 degrees compared with the historic average of 66, and the low was 36 compared with the historic average low of 42. The average temperature for the month was 49 degrees, five degrees below the normal average reading.

Forecasters will be looking this week at the data from December, January and February to determine where the winter falls in history, said meteorologist David Shuler in Jacksonville. And remember, winter isn't over until March 20.

Before a winter season is labeled as one of the coldest, various measures have to be applied, such as how temperatures compared with the average temperature and the number of freezes.

"We've had more freezes than we normally would," said meteorologist Scott Carroll, also in Jacksonville. But, he said, many record lows weren't broken.

Also, December was not a record month for cold temperatures in Gainesville, Weather Service records show. The average high was 67 degrees with the average low 47 degrees, compared with historic averages of 68 and 44. The average temperature was 57 degrees, about a degree higher than the norm.

Effects from the cold are evident around the state and even in the waters offshore.

Biologists now believe an influx of cold water is responsible for coral deaths in waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, according to a report released last week. Inshore and mid-channel reefs from Biscayne Bay to Summerland Key had the most damage. Cold-water coral die-off hasn't taken place in the Florida since the late 1970s.

About 30 percent of crops statewide were lost in January, said Terry McElroy with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Much of the damage occurred in the southern half of the state, where more planting had already begun. It's estimated the state will lose $250 million to $450 million in sales due to crop damage, depending on how much can be replanted and sold once temperatures stabilize.

The loss, however, isn't the worst the state's agricultural community has experienced due to the weather.

Much of the citrus industry was lost in the mid-1980s due to the cold, particularly in Central Florida, McElroy said.

And hurricanes have caused billions of dollars in damage not only to crops but to agricultural infrastructure.

"In the grand scheme of things, this is not as devastating," McElroy said. But, he added, "This is certainly very, very significant and a very significant loss from a freeze."

Temperatures this week in Gainesville will range from the upper 60s to the low 30s, according to Weather Service forecasts. A 60 to 70 percent chance of rain is expected Monday night and Tuesday, with freezing temperatures possible overnight Wednesday and Thursday.

Warmer temperatures and sunny skies are forecast for the coming weekend with highs in the 70s.

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