FORT WAYNE – No, those daffodils springing from the ground along Main Street downtown are not a mirage. And yes, if you look closely, the lilies are starting to grow there, too.
And you already know this from experience, but well confirm it for you with numbers – this has been one of the warmest winters on record.
A warm winter is not exactly breaking news, but coming after the loud late-fall predictions that it would be a cold day in Hawaii before we saw another winter with as much snow and cold as wed get in the coming months; you do have to scratch your head and wonder: What happened?
Well it wasnt a terrible winter, but it was a terrible forecast, admits Paul Pastelok, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather.com.
The Journal Gazette reported Oct. 16 that AccuWeathers long-range forecasting team has marked Chicago as the epicenter for the worst of this winters snow and cold, and Pastelok said it is expected to hit early and hit hard. The newspaper quoted Pastelok saying, Weve had three rough winters with above-average snowfall and low temperatures. I think this is going to be a fourth. This region is going to see the brunt of it.
Heres the thing about being wrong: Sometimes you can be mostly right, but the one thing you got wrong covers everything like, well, heavy snow.
The jet stream
You may not believe it, but Pastelok was mostly right about the snowfall. Really.
Normally by Feb. 26 – and this is according to the National Weather Service, not AccuWeather trying to massage its numbers – Fort Wayne can expect 28 inches of snowfall. As of Feb. 26 this year, Fort Wayne had received 31.9 inches.
Thats right – weve gotten almost 4 inches more snow than usual at this point.
When? And where did it go?
Well, thats the part that AccuWeather got wrong, Pastelok says with a surprising amount of good humor for someone with a forkful of crow.
AccuWeathers long-range forecasting team – and many others, as well – predicted that big high-pressure systems in Canada would force the jet stream south, pumping ice-cold air into the Midwest where it would slam into warm, moist air flowing up from the Gulf of Mexico, a flow that normally fuels storms along the East Coast.
They were right about the warm, moist air from the Gulf. But the cold, Arctic air? Not so much. So we got the moisture – and a normal seasons worth of snow.
But nothing like we could have had if the Arctic freeze had shown up.
We really busted badly on temperatures, Pastelok said. Its probably going to be second-warmest winter overall since 1950.
The Farmers Almanac called its prediction for the winter of 2011-12 Clime and Punishment and said Indiana could expect average winter temperatures but heavy snow.
Our snowfall total since Oct. 1 is about 3 inches above normal, but the National Weather Service says we probably wont make our average season snowfall total of 34 inches, given the temperatures, though well miss it by only 2 inches.
So why is it so hard to remember any snow at all this year?
Those warm temperatures melted the snow as soon as it fell: There have been 20 days this winter with more than a trace of snow on the ground at 7 a.m. in Fort Wayne. That easily puts us in the top five for fewest days with snow on the ground, going back to 1981.
In fact, the National Weather Service says, there have been only four winters in all that time when there hasnt been at least one day with 6 inches or more on the ground.
This years deepest snow? Five inches.
And thats not so good if youre in the snow-removal business.
Fickle weather, sales
At Lowes and Home Depot, the entrances are still stacked with pallets of snowmelt and rock salt, just in case. But at Lowes, the dozen red snow blowers have been relegated to the exit doors, where they sit, ignored. At Home Depot, the snow-blower floor space has already been taken over by lawn mowers and tillers.
At Mutton Power Equipment on Illinois Road, the snow blowers are marked down 20 percent, while the staff is busy selling mowers and tractors.
December, January and February have been as slow (for sales of snow blowers) as its ever been, marketing director Joe Mutton said. I dont think you could give one away right now.
But not all is lost. Those predictions last year of a terrible winter to come? They were golden.
For the entire year, weve actually had one of our best years, Mutton said. We really did have a good snow-blower season; it just happened to be packed into preseason sales.
Mutton sold an entire seasons worth of machines in October and November, making the rest of the season much easier to handle.
But Mutton is used to fickle weather and fickle sales.
Snows just a really weird thing because unless people think theyre going to be stuck or stranded, they dont want to think about it, he said. Obviously were in a seasonal business, but with snow its even more of a day-to-day business.
Last year, no one bought snow blowers until a Feb. 1 snowstorm dumped a foot of snow, and then a majority of the inventory flew off the floor in just two days, Mutton said.
But while those businesses dependent on snow suffer, there have been silver linings in other industries.
Bill Berning Jr., president of Doc Dancer Heating & Air Conditioning, said a lack of a cold, hard winter has meant fewer furnace breakdowns and fewer people looking for new furnaces to ward off the chill. But that has also meant schedules that arent as hectic.
Now our business is more steady and easier to handle, he said.
And when thoughts turn to air conditioners? Which could be as soon as, you know, Tuesday?
When it comes, well be ready for it, Berning said.
Vomit and mud
Fort Waynes normal average winter temperature since 1981 is 27.4 degrees. This years average is 32.4 degrees, the sixth highest since 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated incumbent Herbert Hoover for president.
With temperatures in the 60s last week, this winter could be one for the record books.
But if you have dogs, you know how warm its been. Thats because instead of a snowy playground for Spot, your backyard is more like the mud pit , which eventually gets tracked onto your carpet every time the family pet comes inside.
This is going to be our best February ever. Weve more than doubled last February, said Keith Kohaut, owner of Steam A Way Carpet Cleaning in Fort Wayne. I put a lot of it toward the weather.
Not only are people having to clean up after Fido, but its so warm theyre thinking of spring cleaning, which for many means having the carpets done.
Both are making up for a welcome downturn in another side of the business.
Normally at this time we get a lot of calls from people about being sick, theyre vomiting and throwing up and need their carpet cleaned, Kohaut said. Thats not happening this year; maybe thats the weather, too.
Stanley Steemer is seeing the same thing. At a time theyre normally recovering from the pre-holiday rush and maintaining equipment, co-owner Scott Stites said, theyre hiring to keep up with demand.
So, at the risk of being wrong, um, again, what does AccuWeathers Pastelok see for us in the future?
A mild spring, followed by an ending of La Niña (the cause of the weather havoc lately), which means a nice, normal summer – whatever that means.
And after that? Well, we could be heading into a period of El Niño, in which case all bets are off.