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Unusually warm weather puts the East Coast in early bloom

Meteorologists say a moderate El Nino is the climatic culprit.

January 06, 2007|Robert Lee Hotz | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The cherry blossoms are blooming in Brooklyn by the thousands; daffodils are budding in the Bronx; and in Central Park, toddlers have yet to see a single snowflake this winter, the first time in more than a century that the city's most celebrated sledding slopes have been snow-free so long into the season.

Throughout the region, winter seems in full retreat.

Temperatures have been running 6 degrees above normal for at least a month, federal weather experts said. Winter coats are clinging to retail racks, not commuters' backs. Even the artificial snow on ski slopes is melting.

For New York, Washington and Boston this weekend, weather experts are forecasting April in January, with temperatures in the 60s -- and showers.

In fact, balmy weather is forecast for the entire Eastern Seaboard in the week ahead -- up to 20 degrees above normal in some areas -- according to the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center, while the West can expect abnormal cold.

This winter, the abnormal is becoming routine, with the natural contradictions of climate confounding seasonal expectations.

Three blizzards in as many weeks have buried Colorado in snow, with 10-foot-high drifts, and left thousands of people in Kansas and Nebraska without power.

Yet New Jersey had its warmest December in the 111 years on record. New York has not been so snowless since 1877. Even so, in each of the last four years, snowfall in Central Park set records, averaging twice the normal annual accumulation.

"Global warming?" said a panhandler in Manhattan's Washington Square, shaking a paper cup of change. "Maybe it's that El Nino thing."

Indeed, meteorologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration credit a weak but influential El Nino current that has been stirring in the Pacific Ocean since the summer for unseasonably warm winter temperatures in the East. El Nino's warm ocean currents, which can affect weather patterns worldwide, are expected to moderate the Northeastern winter for much of the month.

"Is this part of global warming? No. This is cyclical," said meteorologist Dennis Feltgen at NOAA headquarters in Silver Spring, Md. "We have a moderate-strength El Nino in progress now, and it is doing everything that a moderate-strength El Nino is supposed to do, which is -- most of all -- to promote above-normal temperatures."

Whatever the reason -- wayward jet streams, cyclical ocean currents, greenhouse gases or solar flares -- the new year may be on its way to becoming the warmest on record globally, according to a forecast Thursday by the British Metrological Office at the University of Anglia. Last year was considered the sixth-warmest year on record worldwide, with 2005 the warmest in a century.

Among nature's most sensitive climate sensors are flowering plants. Throughout the Northeast this year, their seasonal clocks are running fast.

After so many weeks of unusually warm weather, Spring's Promise, a rose-colored camellia, is in full bloom at the New York Botanical Garden. So are the witch hazel and the yellow sprays of grape holly. Snowdrops and crocuses are breaking through the soil. Tree buds everywhere are swelling.

"I have never seen anything remotely like this," said Todd Forrest, vice president for horticulture and living collections at the Bronx-based gardens. "Plants that in a normal New York year would flower in March are flowering in January."

Outside the greenhouse at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the branches of a Japanese apricot tree are heavy with hundreds of blossoms, each one a fragile pink cup of petals. Normally, the tree doesn't bloom until March, said botanist Mark Tebbitt, the facility's horticultural taxonomist.

"Generally, we are seeing the flowering plants come into bloom one to three months earlier this year," he said.

Two hundred miles north at Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum, one of the oldest botanical gardens in North America, botanists have been tracking blooming times since the early 1800s.

There, the pink shell azaleas, honeysuckle and fragrant viburnum are blooming this week, not in April as they usually do. The winter jasmine, which normally does not blossom until March, began flowering in the third week of December, according to Julie Warsowe, the arboretum's manager of visitor education.

"It is almost past its peak now," she said.

lee.hotz@latimes.com

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