Low snowfall, warm temps make history

ADDISON COUNTY — Once upon a time, March came in like a lion and went out like a lamb, but not this year. This past March came in like a lamb and went out like a hot tamale, throwing local residents, businesses and some wildlife for a loop. And the string of 70- and 80-degree days late in March followed an unusually warm and dry winter.
How to sum up the winter of 2011-2012?
That’s the word Nathan Foster, observation program leader at the National Weather Service in Burlington, used to describe the hottest March on record.
According to National Weather Service data recorded by local observers, Salisbury averaged 44 degrees in March, 11.1 degrees above the historical average and shattering the previous record set in 2010 of 38.1 degrees. South Lincoln averaged 39.8 degrees, 12.8 degrees higher than the historical average, crushing the previous March record of 35.7 degrees, also set in 2010.
Salisbury experienced its earliest 80-degree day on record when the thermometer hit 81 degrees on the March 20. It also witnessed 12 new record-high days and one tie last month. The highest Salisbury temperature of the month was 82 degrees on the 22nd, but the highest March temperature on record was set in 1998 at 88 degrees.
South Lincoln witnessed its warmest temperature ever recorded in March at 78 degrees on the 23rd. There were nine record-high days last month and one tie. The previous record high temperature for March was set in 1990 at 76 degrees. Cornwall temperatures, which the Independent usually reports, haven’t yet been logged by the weather service.
This winter didn’t just end warm — it started that way. South Lincoln had its hottest November on record and Salisbury tied its record. Cornwall had its second warmest December, while Salisbury and South Lincoln experienced their fifth and third warmest Decembers, respectively. January was a bit more usual with only Salisbury having a top-10 warmest month — its fourth warmest January.
February, however, opened up again to warm winds. South Lincoln and Salisbury experienced their second warmest Februaries to date, and Cornwall witnessed its fourth warmest February.
Local towns also experienced near-record low precipitation rates this past winter, which accounted for below-average snowfalls from December through March.
Local ski centers and outdoor shops were hit particularly hard by the lack of snow. And while many businesses waited for the white stuff all winter, the mild temperatures sewed a silver lining for some.
After an abundance of snow last year, Ripton’s Rikert Nordic Skiing Center closed this winter on March 14, 20 days earlier than last winter. Revenues for the season were about 60 percent off from last year, said Rikert Director Mike Hussey, who explained that Nordic skiing businesses across New England Nordic experienced similar woes.
“It went from a stellar year to an abysmal year in one cycle. And if you average out the two years, they’re both pretty good,” said Hussey.
One of the biggest obstacles this year, said Hussey, was the sporadic change in temperatures and the shifting of snow to rain.
“It was pretty rough,” he said. “We probably had trails open and had to shut everything down six times this winter.”
Of the numerous events Rikert had planned this winter, the center was only able to host one race on a half-kilometer loop, bulked up by man-made snow. The center did, however, have its busiest day ever. Several days after Christmas, Hussey said, Rikert beat its previous skier record by 10 percent.
“It showed there was a huge amount of interest with people just waiting for the snow,” he said.
Just up Route 125 in Hancock, the county’s only downhill skiing and snowboarding facility, the Middlebury Snow Bowl, had a similarly difficult season, but a bit less severe than Rikert’s. The Snow Bowl, which closed March 19, operated 89 days this year — 21 days short of its 110-day target.
Snow Bowl Manager Peter Mackey said he couldn’t remember an “open winter” with so little snow since the 1979-1980 season.
“That year we didn’t have snow making and we only operated for 30 days,” he said. “This year without snowmaking we would’ve operated for maybe a couple of weeks. So snowmaking saved the season.”
Skihaus in Middlebury, which sells outdoor clothing and sells and rents ski equipment, saw first-quarter revenues down significantly from last year, said co-owner Anna Boisvert.
“We usually have quite a bit of tourist traffic, especially in January, and that just didn’t happen this year,” she said. “We also went on sale earlier than past years.”
One glimmer of hope for the spring season is that bike sales are already up, Boisvert said. And the bike department at the Skihaus isn’t alone.
Middlebury’s Ralph Myhre Golf Course and the Ferrisburgh Driving Range both had record early starts to the year.
“We opened almost a month earlier than ever before in recorded history,” said John Davis, a Ralph Myhre pro shop attendant, who said he’s golfed at the Middlebury course since 1958. 
Previously, the earliest course opening was April 15, this year it opened on March 16.
The Ferrisburgh Driving Range opened March 18, almost two weeks before its previous early season record of March 31.
Both Davis and Bob McNary, owner of the driving range, said that golfing conditions at their respective establishments are good.
“Normally the balls are plugged in mud and this year that’s not the case,” said McNary. “Conditions at the range are better than they’ve ever been at this time of the year.”
The warm temperatures this winter have also affected the county’s biology, but in some spheres more than others.
Ian Worley, professor emeritus of environmental studies at University of Vermont, has spent years tracking Addison County’s bird populations. Using a worldwide database called eBird, the Weybridge resident has been able to follow bird trends this season and put them in the context of sightings over decades.
“The most visible thing is some birds that move a bit southwards in the fall migration have been coming back earlier than normal, as long as there’s a food source for them,” said Worley. “The long-distance migrants down in South or Central America, they aren’t back. They don’t know what the weather is like.”
Three main factors — snow cover, temperature and food — have drawn three bird species back earlier than usual this year, said Worley. Those species are:
•  Turkey vultures, which came back a month earlier in January. They feed on dead animals and were able to get to their food source due to a lack of snow.
•  Song sparrows, which arrived in March two weeks earlier than usual in what Worley called “large and noticeable numbers.” They feed on seeds.
•  And phoebes, which arrived about a week earlier than usual in March. They eat flying insects and nest in garages, barns and under the eaves of houses.
“There’s been a fair amount of buzz around birders surrounding early arrivals. But when I try to make a list, it doesn’t come up with a great surge of birds coming up from the South early,” said Worley. “What I’ve discovered is that a few species have one or two sightings that are particularly early. But there isn’t a particular flush of many species.”
Steve Trombulak, biology professor at Middlebury College, agrees with Worley. He too hasn’t seen a huge change across bird species in Addison County. What he has noticed is particularly active plant and insect activity. 
“The plants seem to be leafing out much earlier. I’m noticing that most of the shrubs out in Weybridge are leafing out about three months earlier than normal, and the ticks are much more active than before,” he said. “That may be driven as much by rainfall as by temperatures. So one must be careful not to ascribe all of these changes to temperatures.”
Trombulak said the warm weather could also boost mammal populations, but it’s too soon to tell.
“It’s a little too soon to say whether the warmer temperatures lead to greater overall (mammal) survival and whether that then leads to a really big flush of babies,” he said.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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