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Warm winter weather a welcome sign for some

Cape Gazette of Lewes, Delaware

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So far, no adverse impacts to ag

Some people may be getting used to winter temperatures in the 60s, but state climatologist Dan Leathers says it's flat-out abnormal. Record breaking, even.

Looking at weather data collected in Georgetown over the last two decades, Leathers can say with confidence that December 2015 is easily the warmest December recorded in that time.

"November was warm, too, but December has been the month that has been really abnormal," he said.

The wet and warm weather has brought slugs, stink bugs and beach bums out of hibernation, and some residents in the Cape Region are seeing buds emerge on plants that, last year, would have been dormant beneath the frost of winter.

"It's December. Why am I taking slugs off of lettuce?" asked local farmer Susan Maddox. "It's weird."

While the warm weather is prompting some plants to kick into their normal spring cycles, for the most part, it's still too early for too much damage to be done, said Department of Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee.

"So far, so good," he said, "but we need to get into a more seasonal pattern for January and February."

If warm temperatures persist for another 30 days, he said, those abnormally budding plants could be severely hurt if a cold snap were to hit.

"If we have this conversation on Jan. 29, and it continues to be warm, then we'd be really concerned about fruit buds and the impact on small grains and cover crops," Kee said. "We need a gradual cooling off and hope that the temperatures stay seasonable and cool, at least through March, and then the natural growth of those fruit crops wouldn't be threatened by fluctuations."

For Maddox, the ability to pick fresh greens in the winter is a positive.

"I don't have a greenhouse at this time, but I don't need one," she said. "But I didn't expect you could harvest lettuce outside in December."

Leathers said the warm weather can be attributed to both El Nino and a persistent ridge in the jet stream over the eastern part of the United States, which keeps warm air from the Gulf of Mexico flowing over the East Coast.

December temperatures have been running about 13 degrees above normal, with an average high temperature just over 61 degrees. Recorded low temperatures, which would normally be around 30 degrees in December, also have been warmer than normal, with the average low in December 2015 at about 42.5 degrees. The average mean temperature in December was at 52 degrees, easily surpassing the 48-degree average in December 2001.

December 2015 was also a wetter-than-average month, Leathers said, but not outstandingly.

"Whichever way you look at it, it's been an unusual December," he said.

In a phone interview Dec. 29, Leathers said it's too soon to officially make an announcement, but he expects December 2015 will be one of the top 10 warmest months on record since temperature data in Delaware was first collected in 1895.

Warmer winter temperatures also are affecting local migration patterns, said Delaware Center for the Inland Bays Executive Director Chris Bason.

"With these types of climate shifts, the old patterns of migration are just beginning to dissolve and people can't count on things like they used to," he said.

Fall runs of striped bass and wintering waterfowl have been nearly absent this year, he said. With ocean water temperatures at about 55 degrees, it's simply too warm for striped bass.

"That's happening during the summer, too," he said. "It's hot in the summer, and we see fishes that tend to have a more southernly distribution."

The same can be said for waterfowl, Bason said. While the animals are adapting to the climate conditions, hunters are being left out in the not-so cold.

"Then there are the things we just don't understand, and that's most of it," he said. "That's why we see really strange things happening later in the year, like blooms of algae. ... Climate change, these changes in the weather patterns, are playing a big role. These species have complex life cycles. We should expect more unexpected things to happen."

Despite the record-breaking

December, Leathers said that doesn't mean spring or summer will be unnaturally warm, or that the cold will not return in coming months.

"The problem is, after it's been this warm for this long, when you go to normal temperatures, it's going to feel frigid," he said. "Just because it's been warm so far doesn't mean it's necessarily going to stay warm for the rest of the winter."

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Original Publication Date: January 1, 2016

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