Cold Snap May Mean Better Spring
The cold snap of the past several days might help the Sandhills have a prettier spring this year.
That's according to local experts, who say that even though several plant species had started to bud before the recent chillier weather, the cold won't be enough to damage them beyond repair.
"A few things may turn brown," says Pete Gulley, owner of Gulley's Garden Center. "But as long as we stay around the freezing area, we'll be fine. ... It takes a lot of nights of real cold to do some real damage."
According to data from the National Weather Service, based on measurements taken at Raleigh Durham International Airport (closest measuring station to Moore County), the average temperature Monday was 27 degrees above normal. The high was 74 degrees.
"I was so miserable Monday I had all the windows open," says Kim Hyre, a park ranger at Weymouth Woods Nature Preserve.
There have already been four days with a high above 70 degrees in January, following a December that was the fifth-warmest since 1944.
But things have changed quickly. Hyre says she used her rhododendron as an indicator. When the leaves began to drop, she knew that a good cold spell was coming.
By Thursday, the high temperature had dropped to 35 degrees. The low was 27. The average temperature was eight degrees lower than normal. All good signs, experts say.
"Plants need that downtime before they come back and do well," Hyre says.
So what is the reason for Moore County's schizophrenic weather? Is it global warming?
"I wouldn't necessarily say that," says Brandon Dunsten, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Raleigh.
Meteorologist Jeff Orrock says global warming is more of a long-term trend and is not necessarily something that has an impact on temperatures on a day-to-day or month-to-month basis. This time of year, he says, most of the temperatures on the East Coast are determined by what is happening to air masses near the Arctic and Greenland.
Through observing the trends there, Orrock says, he can tell that the next week or two, if not more, will be colder here.
"It's now below normal," he says. "And it's going to be that way for the next few weeks, if not a month."
During the warm stretch, the jet stream had been acting as a blocker to keep cold air from Canada from the East Coast, according to Orrock. East Coast weather has nothing to do with weather in the rest of the country this time of year, he says. While it was so warm here, Colorado was getting hammered with bitter wintry weather.
In the past few days, the pattern has completely changed, Orrock says. The polar jet stream dipped to the south and brought cold air.
"It's a big driving factor for us," Orrock says.
The trends lead Orrock to believe that there may be some snow in the near future for Moore County, because an El Nino is funneling moist air into the southern jet stream. Wednesday night it snowed in the Triangle.
"It's probably not the last time we deal with winter (precipitation)," he says.
Most Plants Hardy
Park Ranger Hyre says she loves seeing the cold weather.
Thursday morning, through the window of the trailer that serves as an office while the Weymouth office is being remodeled, Hyre spied a car down from Chapel Hill with snow still on its roof.
"Ooh, white stuff," she said. "Let's go play with it."
Hyre is a transplant from West Virginia. She loves colder weather. More than that, she says, it's good for the Sandhills ecology.
"I'm glad to see the cold," she says. "This cold snap should reset our plant life and re-establish a normal pattern. I think it's fabulous. We did not have any cold last year, and the cycle was way off."
It does come at a price. Some of the plants are in trouble because they are blooming.
But Gulley says the plants in the Sandhills are generally hardy enough to live through a cold spell, as long as there aren't several nights with temperatures in the teens.
Gulley, who was wearing his brand new winter jacket for the first time all season Thursday, has followed the weather patterns in the Sandhills for years. He says this is par for the course.
"It happens all the time," he says. "It's erratic. That's why I live here."
Three or four days with temperatures in the teens can cause some serious damage, but otherwise a cool snap like this one doesn't hurt anything.
People always call the garden center and say that their flowers are starting to come up. They ask what they should do. Gulley laughs and tells them they better run outside and stomp them down, before explaining that it's unlikely they're in real danger.
"Like we can control when a little daffodil is coming up," he says. "Daffodils and pansies are very hardy. And apricots, they're tough as nails."
People feel the weather more acutely than the plants, Gulley says, especially when the change is as dramatic as it has been recently. He reminds people that plants are in the ground, which retains a lot of heat.
"It seems like it's cold because the wind is blowing," he says. "But then you go and look at the thermometer, and it's not that bad."
'Year to Year'
The quick weather change is unlikely to affect this year's peach crop, says Roger Galloway, extension agent for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension office in Montgomery County.
"This cool weather now is good for (the peaches)," says Watts Auman, owner of a peach orchard in West End. "It's going to be a help. They need to remain dormant."
Auman says he had been concerned about the warm weather and that it would cause the trees to bloom early. Now that's not such a worry.
Galloway spoke to The Pilot because Taylor Williams, the extension agent for Moore County, was out of town at a conference. Galloway said that most peaches require 800 to 900 hours of cold to break their dormancy.
"They have to go through a certain amount of cold," he said.
Cold later in the growing season threatens peaches, Galloway said, not cold now.
"Usually the cold that makes peach growers real frightened is cold in April," he said, "because that's when you have little peaches out."
Auman said that in the Sandhills, there is always something to worry about, but that the peaches still come.
"It seems every year there is something different," Auman said. "You might say we go from year to year."
Birds and Bugs
National media reports have said that the mild weather on the East Coast has led some bird species to change their migration pattern and not head south this year.
Hyre says she hasn't seen any evidence of that here in Weymouth Woods, which was designated in September as an Important Bird Area by Audubon North Carolina.
A call did come in that a cardinal was banging into a window in Carthage. That is a sign of a new bird in the area, she says.
"That's usually a territorial thing that they do in spring," she says. "Birds are trying to set up territories."
But in the Sandhills, trying to prove that migration patterns are anything other than normal is difficult. Hyre says experts know that the birds don't stay in the Sandhills year-round, but they are replaced by the exact same species from up north.
"We've still got cardinals year-round," she says. "We've still got robins year-round."
Galloway says he is worried that the unseasonably warm weather will bring insect problems. That's another reason why the current cold weather is a good thing.
"It should knock our bugs back to their normal state," Hyre says. "Last year we were inundated with bugs -- ticks and chiggers, the bad ones."
'Actual Spring' Possible
Galloway is worried that the warm weather will bring more fire ants into this area. They have been steadily marching north in the Past few years from Louisiana.
"The cold really slows them down," he says. "You may see them moving north. There could be a good crop of them here."
Hyre says she hasn't seen any butterflies at Weymouth yet this year, but that she wouldn't be surprised if there had been some.
Galloway also says the warm weather could lead more weed species to live through the winter -- yet another reason why the recent cold is a good thing.
Who knows? Hyre may even get her wish for snow.
"I'm tickled to death," Hyre says, "I'm just disappointed there isn't any white stuff. But we might have an actual spring this year."
Matthew Moriarty may be reached at 693-2479 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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