Which month is it, anyway?

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE and MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: March 15, 2012 - 8:54 AM

With high temperatures in the 70s and golfers and kayakers out in force, Wednesday resembled a fine day in May.

Except that it wasn't quite mid-March.

A warm streak that brought the Twin Cities its fourth record high in five days has been "unprecedented for March," assistant DNR state climatologist Pete Boulay said. Ice vanished from three southern Minnesota lakes this week, signaling an early start to spring's engines, and the National Weather Service has forecast highs in the 70s until at least Tuesday. That's about 30 degrees above normal -- extreme even by the standards of the recent exceedingly warm winter.

"I can't even imagine how many records are going to fall by this time next week," said University of Minnesota Extension climatologist Mark Seeley, cautioning that abnormal spring warmth frequently leads to warmer-than-normal summers.

The high temperatures have been a creature of the same atmospheric conditions that brought persistent warmth all winter, said Jacob Beitlich, meteorologist with the Twin Cities office of the Weather Service. The global systems known as La Niña and the North Atlantic Oscillation have teamed up to keep the jet stream running along the Canadian border, holding storms to the north and allowing warm air from the south to spread across much of the northern United States. Lack of reflective snow cover, meanwhile, has allowed more solar radiation to warm the air at ground level than in most winters and early springs.

Translation: Ski hills have closed and golf courses are opening, mostly ahead of schedule.

So long, heat; hello, AC

Large office buildings are switching on the air conditioning, and yard and landscape services are thinking more about plants than plows. In the Twin Cities on Wednesday, outdoor seating was in demand at restaurants, a few determined anglers cast from the shore of the Mississippi River and, near downtown, a young girl played hopscotch barefoot.

Buck Hill in Burnsville shut down its ski lifts at the end of Sunday. The average closing in recent years has been March 15, so that's not too far off, controller Greg Eppich said.

At Uptown Lawn and Snow, about half the plows have been dismantled, but the staff is ready to mobilize in the event of a spring snowfall, operations manager Deanna Fritz said.

"This is Minnesota," she said. "You can't just write winter off totally yet."

There wasn't much call for plowing this winter, but the company has a balance of prepaid contracts and per-service customers. After the snowy 2010-11 season, lots of the per-service clients moved to contract agreements. That cushioned the blow, for her business anyway, Fritz said.

In downtown Minneapolis, the IDS Tower was switching Wednesday from heating to cooling in parts of the building that catch a lot of solar radiation, general manager Jim Durda said. That work is more commonly done in April.

Three Ramsey County golf courses are scheduled to open Thursday, though it's not tee time yet at TPC Twin Cities golf course in Blaine. Senior General Manager and Director of Golf Alan Cull said there's still snow in the bunkers and shaded areas at TPC. But the dormant grass is very fragile and the wet soil is vulnerable to compaction.

"Every divot we take now won't be healed when we get into the key part of the season," he said. "Things don't recover as fast when the grass is dormant."

The hope is to open midweek next week. That would still beat the previous earliest opening by about 10 days.

The National Sports Center course in Blaine will be opening its driving range on Monday, with hopes to open the course by March 26, three days ahead of its record earliest date.

Barges on the way

The season's first barge-tow up the Mississippi River is expected to arrive at St. Paul this weekend -- not a record, but early.

"It's remarkable and a little scary," said Hokan Miller of Upper River Services, a barge-servicing business in St. Paul. "Everything's happening early all the way down the system."

While the length of this March heat wave appears to be historic, similar blasts have occurred and recently. March 2000 put five straight record highs in the books, March 4-8. The record broken by Tuesday's 67-degree high had been set only five years ago; the mark shattered Wednesday dated only to 2010.

Minnesota's summer heat records tend to be older, Boulay noted, with many occurring in the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. But recent warming winters have rewritten many cool-month record highs. Rochester set a state record high of 74 Wednesday, Seeley said.

mcaul@startribune.com • 612-673-7646 mbaca@startribune.com •612-673-4409

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