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December 4, 2012

Is another mild winter on the way?

CLINTON — T-shirts and shorts are not typical attire for December, but as temperatures soared into the upper 60s on Monday, residents took advantage of the winter heat wave.

“November often brings a long string of mild weather, but December is a different story,” State Climatologist Harry Hillaker said.

Monday’s high of 68 tied with the record high of the same day set in 1970 and came close to the record high for December of 70 degrees set on Dec. 4, 1998. Last year the high was 48 degrees, which is still above the normal temperature of 39 degrees, said Jim Blaess, an official weather observer for the US government.  The toasty day follows a mild weekend with highs of 58 and 59 on Saturday and Sunday respectively. December’s warm start stemmed from a mild and dry November. Above normal temperatures and drought have put the precipitation for the year at 21.86 inches down from the normal at 32.46 inches. Currently this year is on pace to be the second driest on record, according to Blaess.

“We are moving in to the driest part of the year,” Hillaker said. “These temperatures, while warm, aren’t high enough to have big consequences for drought.”

Does this mark the start of another mild winter? The verdict isn’t in yet, as measuring weather patterns like El Nino and La Nina have often proven fruitless. Prior to the last two winters the climate patterns predicted the exact opposite.

Currently the state remains in neutral, leaving the outcome of this winter unpredictable, according to Hillaker.

With much of the land still green, many are left wondering whether there will be a white Christmas this year.

On average, December sees 8.3 inches of snow, but last December the area only got one inch.

“Historically Eastern Iowa gets a white Christmas about half the time,” Hillaker said. “So far this year, we’ve only had one spot in Northeast Iowa that got a little bit of snow about a month ago.”

In addition to enjoying outdoor activities in the pleasant weather, the warm temps actually have some benefits for farmers too.

 “Normally it’s good to have some freeze-thaw cycles to help relieve those with dry soil,” Iowa State University Extension Field Manager Virgil Schmitt said. “Some of the cracking due to drought actually functions as a compaction reliever.”

Unfortunately the milder the weather is, the easier it is on bugs and vermin. Bean leaf beetles thrive in mild winter temps, feasting on soybean crops, but with low numbers to begin with, this is not expected to be a huge problem.

“If the weather is easier on us, it’s easier on them too,” Schmitt said.

Other bugs like Soy Bean Aphids, corn root worms and corn boars would also benefit from a gentle winter, but spring determines the ultimate production of these pests. Rodents like mice, voles and rats would also thrive in milder conditions.

Snowfall precipitation doesn’t affect crops much, because the ground usually freezes and is unable to pick up the moisture. Last year the ground didn’t freeze and much of the moisture ran into the soil, preparing crops for the drought that was last summer. The big importance is what rain the spring brings.

“We take advantage of what we can,” Schmitt said. “If the ground doesn’t freeze and we can get some moisture from the snow, we’ll take anything we can get.”

Snow more greatly affects shipping on the river. The melting of snow in the spring raises river levels allowing for safe distribution following the driest season of the year.

Will this winter bring more T-shirt days or snow days? Only time will tell.

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