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March weather: A little bit of everything, maybe a lot more pests

With winds blowing hard from the north, a

With winds blowing hard from the north, a truck drives through a flooded road along the Peconic River in Riverhead on March 2, 2018. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Spring, so longed-for after winter’s brutality, its green buds promising flowers and sweet fruits, heralding long, sunny summer days to come.

Wait — January and February were among the warmest of winter months on Long Island, and even December was rather balmy. It has scarcely snowed.

Does this pattern undermine some of the joys of spring, which this year arrives on March 19? Does it foretell a troubling growing season? It very well may, wary gardeners and entomologists say.

The white stuff can buffer the green stuff from extreme temperatures, noted Vincent Simeone, director of Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park in Upper Brookville. “I think what I’m most concerned with is ornamental shrubs and trees,” he said.

Hardy plants, including the camellias growing in an unheated greenhouse, were thriving ahead of the park’s annual festival to showcase them March 1, he said.

The prospect of warm spells followed by a descent into frigid temperatures, however, remains worrisome, both for anything that buds, and for bees, vital pollinators already succumbing to pesticides, parasites and development.

Mina Vescera, a Cornell Cooperative Extension nursery/landscape specialist, said fruit trees, herbaceous ornamentals, and roses along with their woody stem peers, all are at risk. “Many growers are concerned that plants will break dormancy early, which will make them susceptible to late frosts,” Vescera said. 

Thaws can rouse bees prematurely, said Dan Gilrein, a Cornell Cooperative Extension entomologist. “On warmer days should temperatures drop suddenly, workers that have left the hive may not be able to return,” he said.

And mild winters can boost pests, sending them north. One example he cited is the crop-infesting corn earworm, which usually doesn’t reach Long Island until summer. This year, “assuming we don’t have a highly unusual extended extreme cold period, I suspect we’ll see the pest earlier and in larger numbers than usual,” he said.

Cold usually restrains leaf-eating common bagworms that winter on the Island. Not so much anymore, he said, anticipating more problems from this “building” population.

While bitter cold does not kill ticks, despised by many for the diseases they carry, it does tend to immobilize them. But again, not this year, Gilrein noted.

Warmer winters are, however, “a huge benefit for those folks who winter-sow seeds as well as people who start veggies on top of compost piles or in raised beds and containers, as these will warm up faster,” said Ann Wetzel, board member of the Long Island Horticultural Society.

This winter has another positive aspect: all that rain “should alleviate concerns of drought in summer,” she said.

HOW ABOUT THIS YEAR?

The forecast for the first March of a new decade, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center says, suggests mid-Atlantic dwellers, including Long Islanders, might not wish to put away their winter coats anytime soon. That's because the odds are around 33% to 40% that temperatures will be below average.

When it comes to precipitation, however, there are equal chances for above-normal, normal and below-normal amounts.

WHAT'S NORMAL, WHAT'S NOT

TEMPS

The mean temperature in March is 39.3 degrees — 6.5 degrees warmer than February’s average, according to the NWS.

For the entire month, the warmest March was 47.3 degrees in 2012; the coldest was 32.5 degrees in 1967.

On the warmest March day — the 13th in 1990 — the temperature hit 82 degrees. The record low — zero degrees — was in 1967, on March 18 and 19. 

By the end of March, there will be 82 more minutes of daylight — that's 12 hours, 40 minutes on the 31st, with sunrise at 5:37 a.m. and sunset at 6:17 p.m. that day.

PRECIP

The normal amount of rain is 4.4 inches, which is more than February’s 3.26 inches.

The wettest March was in 2010, with 9.41 inches of rain, the weather service said. The driest was in 2012, when there was 0.99th of an inch.

SNOW

Normal is 4.5 inches for the month. The snowiest March day occurred in 1967, when 15 inches fell on the 22nd.

WILD WEATHER

Consider the contrasts

On March 29, 1998, with just thin, hazy clouds scattered across the bright blue sky and the temperature bouncing just over the 80-degree mark, Long Islanders played hooky like it was already summer.

They cruised to Jones Beach on in-line skates, played golf at Bethpage State Park, ran across soccer fields and even shopped for rakes and fertilizer. 

"It happens every year," Guy Bowen said back on that day in 1998 of the warm-weather shopping frenzy. Early in the morning he had workers putting sacks of fertilizer, rakes and potting soil outside Wolly's Hardware in Farmingdale.

From a counter at the front of the store, clerk Bob Lamneck reflected on the difference a few days can make. "Last week we were selling snow shovels. Now we're selling charcoal and fertilizer," he said.

One day later, sunny skies and the fourth day of record high temperatures caused an outbreak of blue-and-orange flu, as Mets fans lined up in Port Washington to catch the train to Opening Day at Shea Stadium.

"This definitely is a call-in-sick day," said James Olford of Port Washington as he raced to catch the train with his wife, Susan, and their son, Junior. "The weather is great. The Mets are playing. What else could we want? This good weather on Opening Day is a sign of good luck for the team."

As if to prove him right, the Mets won, 1-0.

The mercury climbed to 72 degrees on Long Island, breaking by one degree the old record for the last day of March, set in 1986, the NWS said. It was the third straight day of record-breaking temperatures on Long Island, and the fourth in five days.

Skip ahead two decades to March 22, 2018, for a rather different view. Long Islanders were recovering from a two-day storm that delivered up to 20 inches of snow and helped smash a half-century record.

The fourth nor'easter in three weeks slammed the Island with bands of heavy snow that dropped at least 20.1 inches in Patchogue, with much of Nassau and Suffolk seeing a foot.

"I'm out here without my gloves on," John Scelzi of Ronkonkoma said as he took a break from digging out his car. "I figured, you know what, I'm just going to roll out of here in the morning — and I got a little overwhelmed."

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