Weather worries: Record warmth poses problems for resorts, wildlife

Ryan Locher, mountain manager at Bryce Resort, uses a Snowcat to groom the slopes at the resort on Tuesday afternoon. The resort plans to open the slopes today to start the ski season. Rich Cooley/Daily
A blooming forsythia frames traffic along North Main Street in Woodstock on Tuesday afternoon. Rich Cooley/Daily

While it has been winter for a while, up until now it hasn’t felt like it.

This week marked a shift in temperature as the region experienced about a 50-degree drop from previous weeks when temperatures fell into the teens overnight.

Luis Rosa, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said that last month was the warmest December on record for the Strasburg area. The weather service began recording in 1974.

The average temperature was 42.5 degrees this December, beating the previous record set in 1984, which had an average temperature of 37.8 degrees.

The highest temperature for the Strasburg area was recorded on Dec. 28, when it reached 69 degrees.

For January, he said area residents can expect temperatures to normalize, but they should expect lower than normal snowfall.

The brief snow that fell on Monday was the “latest snowfall ever observed” for our area, he said.

For area areas ski resorts, the lack of snow caused some problems and late openings.

Bryce Resort opened its ski area on Wednesday after a long wait for colder weather, said Doug Grayson, resort marketing director.

“It’s the latest we’ve ever been open in 50 years,” he said.

The resort has over 100 snow guns on the hill but has been waiting for mother nature to provide the cold weather in order to begin using them, he added.

Mid-December is when the resort usually opens up for the season, and some years they have opened before Thanksgiving.

He said he is glad the weather has turned the temperature down because passionate skiers and snowboarders have been waiting at home for their chance to get back onto the snowy hills.

Massanutten Resort, located in McGaheysville, about 10 miles east of Harrisonburg, is also seeing a late start on its slopes. Its ski area opened Wednesday.

According to a news release, the resort purchased additional snowmaking equipment and a new Pisten Bully “Park Pro” snow grooming tractor, installed a new Tube Park conveyor lift and expanded the snow tube lanes, along with other aesthetic improvements to the resort.

While the warmer weather may have been good for those looking to prolong fall weather, the higher-than-usual temperatures in December may cause some problems for outdoor plants this spring, according to Terry Fogle, retail manager at Fort Valley Nursery in Woodstock.

“Plants are not going into their natural dormancy,” he said.

Normally, plants slowly acclimate to the colder temperatures and become hardier in the winter. But with the warm weather, he said the plants are becoming softer and are more prone to tissue damage as the temperatures begin to reach normal winter temperatures.

He said he has seen plants such as forsythia become more active and act like it’s springtime weather and start blooming. These early blooms may cause reduced blooming in the spring, he added.

He said he is especially worried about the sudden drop in temperatures expected over the next few nights. He said he was hoping for a more gradual drop in temperatures to help the plants reach dormancy, but that may not happen. The sudden drop can harm plants as they struggle to adjust to the cold.

“There’s not a great deal we can do to protect (plants) with the cold coming,” he said.

In the spring, he said, repairing the damage and providing the necessary nutrition and proper fertilization will be important to overcome the damage done this winter.

Shenandoah National Park also experienced some unusual plant and animal reactions to the warm December weather.

Rolf Gubler, biologist with the park, said that male bears delayed their denning by about two to four weeks. They typically experience winter lethargy and begin to den in early to mid-December, but that was pushed back as temperatures remained more fall-like.

The temperatures also affected birds. Gubler said that during the Christmas bird count, fewer northern migrants, such as waterfowl, were recorded.

This can be attributed to unfrozen fresh water sources that remained in the North. Birds typically fly south as water sources freeze over farther north, but as the water remained unfrozen, those birds stayed north for longer, he said.

For those in the agriculture business, the warm weather can be seen as problematic or helpful depending upon the crop.

Robert Clark, senior Extension agent of agriculture and natural resources, said that if the warm weather continues, slug damage in no-till systems may become a concern.

“If we have warm winters the number of slug eggs that survive the winter might be greater than occurs in cold winters,” he said. This could mean a higher number of slugs in the spring.

Another concern is an increase in aphid populations that may cause damage in small grain and orchid grass. He said he has done some scouting and hasn’t seen this to be a problem as of yet.

Other concerns include foliar diseases in small grain and the chance of small grain entering the reproductive stage too early and getting “freeze injury” when temperatures cool down.

“Most of our small grain, however, is planted after soybean harvest and is likely not going to experience this problem,” Clark said.

But some barley or rye that was planted early might run into these problems, he added.

On a more positive note, he said that because some farmers plant wheat fairly late, the warm weather has likely helped the wheat fields.

There are also farmers who may see the winterkill process start as temperatures drop on plant cover crops that did not die off during the warmer weather.

As for what’s in store this spring for area farmers, he noted, “As with many things in farming, we simply need to wait until spring to see what happens.”

Contact staff writer Kaley Toy at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or ktoy@nvdaily.com

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