Unusually warm winter weather this year has brought Long Island farmers outdoors at a time when the soil is usually frozen even as fears rise of an insect population boom, the head of a farming association said Friday.
“It actually makes for some more comfortable working weather if you've got to be outdoors, but we all acknowledge that this is not normal,” said Juan Micieli-Martinez, a winemaker and president of the Long Island Farm Bureau. Farmers have been getting more access to their fields this year even though that doesn’t mean they will be planting earlier.
One of the concerns farmers have is that invasive species that would normally die off during the winter months will survive in greater numbers.
“We do suspect that there might be some increased pressure due to the fact that it didn't get cold enough to be able to kill off something that’s maybe more temperature sensitive," Micieli-Martinez said.
One invasive insect of concern is the spotted lanternfly, he said. The insect, which originates in China, is a threat to certain fruits and trees including grapes, apples, cherries, peaches and oak and maple trees, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The warm winter is not normal. The normal high temperature in Islip this time of year is 41 degrees but Friday it hit 57, according to the National Weather Service. The average highs in Islip were 48.3 degrees last month, compared to normal long-term averages of 39.2 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. Despite the warmer temperatures, Long Island didn’t break January’s record high of 69 degrees recorded by the agency on Jan. 29, 2002.
Matt Wunsch, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Upton, said this winter storms have generally tracked to the north and west of Long Island.
“For the most part, the East Coast and the Northeast kind of remained on the warm side of the jet stream for most of the winter,” Wunsch said.
“This isn't necessarily the new normal, it's just we’ve been stuck in this pattern,” he said.
Brian Colle, a professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, said weather variability will bring warm and cold winters but ”there's no doubt that over decades as the climate warms there's indications that the storm track is going to shift northward.”
This shift may mean warmer Long Island winters but “we're talking decades out,” he said.
Extreme temperature shifts can wreak havoc on local wildlife, such as the eastern tiger salamander, said John Turner, conservation policy advocate at Seatuck Environmental Association. The salamanders come out in late winter or early spring but if they are drawn out by warm temperatures and then there’s a cold snap, “it can be devastating and kill them,” Turner said.
“Instead of just having a kind of a more normal winter that just gradually yields to a warming spring that just provides reliable cues to the animals, this back and forth, warm, cold could really be potentially devastating,” Tuner said.