Winter is on the ropes.
After delivering a white Christmas and a snowy start to 2015, the Old Man is reeling. With daytime highs in the 50s and 60s, February is feeling more like April.
This long period of unseasonably warm weather is the result of a strong ridge of high pressure that parked itself over the West in mid-January and hasn’t budged.
“With that ridge in place, our temperatures have been warmer than normal, and we’ve had drier than normal conditions,” said Matthew Aleksa, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.
The weather pattern may yield lower heating bills, but it also may be harmful for fish habitat in the Animas River and September’s fruit tree harvest.
Mixed bag for wildlife
For creatures that thrive on the dependable cycle of the seasons, an extended winter hiatus can mean trouble.
“We’re concerned about fish populations in the Animas River,” said Joe Lewandowski, public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Another low water year probably won’t help.”
“Right now, spring runoff is looking kind of grim,” he said.
Flows in the Animas have been below-average for the last several years, and fish habitat has suffered. A strong spring runoff helps flush the river of sediment and pollution and creates conditions for a healthier ecosystem, Lewandowski said.
The build up of metals pollution from Silverton, dirt and the detritus of development – such as fertilizer and oil – has affected water quality. As a result, the Animas no longer holds a wide age range of fish.
“We’re not seeing the ‘young of the year,’” Lewandowski said. “We like to see different age classes.”
Low flows and warmer temperatures also hold the possibility of raising water temperatures above 60 degrees in the summer, which can be another obstacle to a healthy trout population.
For deer and elk, however, February’s warm spell may be a welcome respite from winter’s harsh realities.
Late summer and early fall rains allowed deer and elk to enter winter in good shape, Lewandowski said.
And warmer temperatures mean they aren’t using as much energy to survive. Typically, deer and elk lose 30 percent to 40 percent of their body weight through the winter.
But, if dry conditions persist through the spring, elk and deer could start to feel a pinch, and the summer monsoon season will be even more critical.
“If we don’t have good spring green-up, those animals won’t find nutritious food,” Lewandowski said.
A threat to fruit trees
February’s pseudo-spring is trying to coax fruit trees to bud, which could have tragic consequences for the harvest.
“Fruit trees will put out flower buds before leaf buds. We’re seeing flower buds thinking about breaking dormancy,” said Darrin Parmenter, director and horticultural agent at the Colorado State University Extension Office in La Plata County. “The actual flower buds are starting to swell.”
Parmenter doubts trees will actually bud in February, but they are on track to bud ahead of schedule.
“With this warm stretch, we’re looking at two to three weeks earlier, which may be mid- to late March,” he said.
And an early budding would put the trees’ fruit production at risk of being hijacked by a spring freeze.
“If they are two weeks early or three weeks early, the chance of them getting a decent fruit-production year are slim,” he said.
Bulbs making an early appearance could be another victim.
“Irises, crocuses, daffodils are definitely coming up early. People are seeing garlic come up early,” Parmenter said. “Anything like that coming up early is probably not going to end well.”
Water, not warmth, biggest worry
The high-pressure system responsible for the warmer temperatures also is diverting storms away from the region, Aleksa said.
Over the long term, lack of moisture could be more harmful than warmer temperatures.
“Water is a bigger concern than the temperature,” Parmenter said. “Stuff is drying out much faster than it should be. If we don’t get the moisture we need this spring, that obviously correlates to how things grow in the summertime.”
A weak snowpack would limit spring and summertime irrigation water for ranchers and farmers and inhibit the growth of forage available for wildlife and livestock grazing in the high country.
But a wet March and April may lie ahead, according to the Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center.
The long-range model the center released in January calls for a possibly wet spring, Aleksa said Tuesday, with precipitation above-normal and temperatures normal to above-normal.
“That springtime moisture is so critical for us because it holds that snowpack a little bit longer,” Parmenter said.
For now, time is on nature’s side.
“We still have a couple of months for good snow,” Lewandowski said.