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Sweating out a warm spring: early blossoms, worry to Utah orchards

Published May 15, 2012 1:58 pm

As predicted, scientists see a heating trend around the nation.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

April's often an anxious time for Thayne Tagge and Utah's other fruit growers.

That's when blossoms sprout on the region's fruit trees — those famous juicy peaches, cherries and apricots. It's also when frost can snap the life right from the buds.

"Right around Easter here is always scary," said Tagge, whose orchard is in Perry. "It's brutal."

This year, the buds were weeks early, so when temperatures plunged the night before the holiday, fruit growers like Tagge could only wait and worry.

Utah, like the rest of the country, had an unusually warm April, and that made the fruit trees especially vulnerable this year.

Said Tagge: "The trees get to think it's time to get blossoms."

In contrast to last year's long, cold spring, this year brought 312 daily high-temperature records and 24 daily low-temperature records in April. To scientists, the bigger concerns were:

• warm records outnumbered the low ones 13-to-one.

• new high records were so many degrees higher than the old ones. Instead of edging past the old records by the usual degree or two, many were as much as 6 degrees warmer than the records they broke in Utah.

"That's huge," said Robert Davies, an associate of the Utah Climate Center at Utah State University.

When scientists and policy makers talk about climate change, one of the many trends they often point to is extreme weather, or "weather on steroids." Last year, tornadoes, floods, drought and other extraordinary weather events were blamed for upwards of $53 billion in damages and 99 federal disaster declarations nationwide.

This "weather weirding" echoes the patterns scientists have projected in their computer modeling. But there are still many questions about the particulars for regions, like the West, if the trend continues into the future.

Warming similar to Utah's — though sometimes more dramatic — emerged nationally this year. The National Climate Data Center reported that warm records exceeded low records nearly 6-to-1, with 6,563 high records reported nationwide and 1,115 daily lows.

April's daily highs, following the warmest March on record nationally, were broken not by a few degrees but by 10 degrees and even as much as 24 degrees, the center said.

"Which is to say," said Davies, writing in the Utah Climate Center's May newsletter, "these high-temperature records were not merely broken but, in many cases, smashed."

He likened the high-temperature trend to measuring an incoming tide.

Wave after wave pushes shoreward, then recedes. The crest fluctuates, but the overall trend is for the tide to advance. Likewise, day-to-day and year-to-year temperatures typically vary, but Utah and other U.S. locations over decades show an overall trend of warming — in a way that seems to be following a climate trend scientists have been forecasting.

This year, the trend played out in northern Utah's mountains with the early fruit-tree blooming and snowpack melting. In the Bear River mountains and the northern Wasatch, the melt began three weeks early, compared with a 30-year average. And, while the melt was about normal in the central Wasatch, the snowpack started to decline as much as six weeks earlier than normal, according to the Utah Climate Center.

"It's virtually certain climate change is playing some role in this phenomenon," Davies said.

Orchard experts at USU have watched the trends with some concern.

Marion Murray, who works with fruit growers on integrated pest management, called it a "trying time."

"I talked to some farmers who said they lost 90 percent of their peaches and their tart cherries," she said.

USU's Brent Black said it was too soon to say how the unusual April record affected crops statewide. But he agreed that it's normal for temperatures to fluctuate in spring. What's happened in recent springs has prompted him to put sophisticated weather stations in orchards to help learn how the trends are playing out.

On the possibility that global climate change is having an effect on Utah's fruit growers, he said: "It's definitely on my mind." In Santaquin, fruit farmers ran fans the night before Easter, as temperatures plunged to 19 degrees and threatened to wipe out the early-blooming peaches, apricots and tart cherries.

Ray Rowley, who manages his family's Cherry Hill farms, said his crops are mostly fine even though temperatures warmed up more than usual and earlier than usual. But he's not worried about a bigger trend.

"People get bent out of shape and they put it on global warming," he said of the weather trends. "But some years, it gets you. Some years, it doesn't."

Tagge credits warmth from the lake effect for blanketing the blossoms on his trees just when they needed it most. The night before Easter, when the thermometer read a frigid 28 degrees and worry gnawed at him, a warm breeze off the Great Salt Lake protected his orchards.

"We didn't get any losses," he said of his tender peaches, apricots and sweet cherries. "We've got a good crop."

fahys@sltrib.com

Twitter: @judyfutah —

April: The third-warmest ever on record

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported recently that the average April temperature in the contiguous United States rose to 55 degrees, about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above average. It also marked the warmest year to date and 12-month period since records began in 1895.

To learn more, visit http://1.usa.gov/JcAKgN