North America

US: Harsh winter’s impact to linger in Michigan

DETROIT — The harshest winter in decades isn’t done affecting Michigan just yet.
This shudder-inducing winter has had a little bit of everything in the state: near-record snowfall — 90.7 inches and counting in metro Detroit, nearing an all-time mark of 93.6 inches set in the winter of 1880-81; the second-most days below zero in a winter ever in the Flint area — 27, one day shy of the all-time record set in 1962-63, and a Great Lakes system that reached 92% ice cover this month — the most in 34 years and the second-most ever.
But going into spring, this winter will continue to have impacts from flooding to fruit, deer die-offs to stalled shipping, and from bees to your sneeze. Here are just some of the ways the winter of 2013-14 will not soon be forgotten.
Expect spring to arrive with shivering temps
Expect a cooler-than-usual start to spring. Normally, the relatively open water of the Great Lakes warms frigid air coming from the northwest into Michigan. It’s why states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin during cold snaps often have temperatures a dozen or more degrees colder than Michigan’s readings, said Frank Marsik, an atmospheric research scientist at the University of Michigan.
But with more ice cover on the Great Lakes lasting longer into the spring, “we’re losing the moderating effect of the lakes,” he said.
A deep snowpack across most of the state won’t help, he added.
“If we’ve got very soggy ground, more of that energy from spring’s sunny days is going into evaporating that water in the ground, rather than warming things up,” Marsik said.
Major flooding possible in parts of Michigan
Sharon Chapman looks at the ice cover remaining on the Huron River just steps from her house, the deep snow still on the ground, and she knows what’s coming.
“There’s concern for flooding — we haven’t had any meltdowns at all,” said Chapman, who lives just downriver from Ore Lake in Hamburg Township. “It’s been years since I’ve seen Ore Lake and the river this ice-covered, this late.”
The National Weather Service says Hamburg Township is the area most in jeopardy of experiencing major flooding this spring — the kind that can damage homes, make roads impassable, force evacuations, even put lives at risk. The Weather Service puts the area’s major flood risk at 56%.
Other areas also are at risk. The National Weather Service reports moderate to major flooding risk throughout much of southeast Michigan, with the river systems near Flint and Saginaw, and the River Raisin basin that includes Dundee and Blissfield, among the areas with particularly higher risks.
Among the frightening potential scenarios is ice-jamming — ice breaking off in large chunks that bunch together and dam rivers — causing water to build up before the dams give way and cause even worse flood conditions, said Danny Costello, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service’s station in White Lake Township.
Adding concern this year is the high water content in the snow on the ground.
“Usually … we had mini-thaws that lessened the water in the snowpack before the big melt,” he said. “This is probably the highest I’ve seen water content in the snowpack. We’re looking at 3 to 5 inches of water locked in the snowpack around the area.”
By comparison, 2 inches of water trapped in ground snow would be considered high in a typical March, Costello said.
Many deer won’t make it; turkeys are stressed
When it comes to Michigan’s wildlife surviving this winter, “in general, the story isn’t good,” said Russ Mason, chief of the state Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Division.
A deer die-off is expected in the Upper and northern Lower peninsulas, though how bad it will be biologists still don’t know, Mason said.
“Our Forest Resources Division has reached out to timber jobbers to leave tree tops on the ground or leave their cut-down trees on the ground for a day or so, so the deer can nibble on them,” he said.
The die-off could mean fewer antlerless deer licenses next deer season — or no such licenses at all, Mason said.
Severe impacts on turkeys throughout the Lower Peninsula also are expected.
“In southern Michigan, we have people talking about seeing turkeys at their bird feeders for the first time,” Mason said. “That’s a sign they are highly stressed.”
Fish die-offs in shallower lakes are likely, as longer-than-usual ice cover prevents oxygenation of the water, Mason said.
Allergy season could start later and be worse
Seasonal allergies occur in all four seasons for Linda Reid.
“I sneeze seven times and then my throat feels like I could take a hairbrush and brush it; it’s just so itchy,” she said.
Popping allergy pills becomes a regular part of spring, the Detroit resident said. And this year, because of this winter, Reid faces both good and bad news.
“I suspect in most places, the spring pollen season is going to be late,” said Estelle Levetin, a biology professor at the University of Tulsa and past chair of the aerobiology committee of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
The bad news?
“Unfortunately, what may happen is, it may compress the season, so you’ll have unusually high pollen levels over a shorter period of time,” Levetin said.
Honeybees in jeopardy, but mosquitoes just fine
Honeybees, the crucial insects to crop pollination that already are dying off at alarming rates because of a mysterious colony collapse disorder, could face further hardships from this tough winter, said Jamin Eisenbach, an entomology professor at Eastern Michigan University.
Bee colonies stay alive through winter by huddling around their queen and warming one another by vibrating, Eisenbach said.
“They consume an amazing amount of honey all winter long,” he said. “They can deal with this cold, but if it persists and they run out of honey, they can’t stay warm.”
But here’s some good news, at least for mosquitoes — they should be fine. They produce a kind of natural antifreeze and shut down metabolically for the winter, Eisenbach said.
“Many of the flood-water-breeding mosquitoes laugh at this kind of winter,” he said.
Farmers fret floods, late freezes will harm crops
Winter’s biggest impact on field crops will be the existing snow and when it melts, according to Martin Nagelkirk, a field crops educator with the Michigan State University Extension based in Sandusky, Mich.
“We’re concerned about where all of that snowmelt is going to go, the flooding of fields and delays in planting,” he said.
Some crops are already in the ground, such as winter wheat and hay, he said. And any prolonged ice sheeting or water ponding could be damaging.
“Some of the crops, we’d like to start putting in the ground in another month — sugar beets, alfalfa seedlings,” Nagelkirk said. “In six weeks, we’d like to be planting corn and soybeans in earnest…. We might attain that, but this weather pattern certainly begs the question.”
Jim King, a co-owner of King Orchards in Central Lake, said his fruit trees can take 10-below temperatures. The problem is, temperatures reached 15 below and 18 below this winter.
“Our most tender crops would be apricots, peaches and sweet cherry trees,” he said. “Was it enough to wipe them out? I don’t know. I’m hoping that any damage was minimal.”

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