Heating bills around town have been down this winter, ladybugs are already out, and restaurants are serving customers outdoors.
What’s not to like about a winter that didn’t seem to arrive?
For starters, allergy alerts are arriving a month earlier than normal.
“We’re comparing our pollen counts from a year ago to now, and it’s about 100 times higher,” said immunologist Chitra Dinakar of the allergy and asthma division at Children’s Mercy Hospital.
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As Dinakar’s colleagues began arriving to work sniffling and sneezing, the hospital on Feb. 22 issued its first allergy alert of the season. In most years pollen counts don’t raise concerns until mid-March, Dinakar said.
Michele DeLeon, typically a seasonal allergy sufferer, said she has been feeling it all winter.
“We haven’t had a winter per se,” said DeLeon, 39, of Kansas City. “This morning (Monday) was really, really bad. I’ve taken more allergy pills throughout this winter than ever before.”
Dinakar attributed growing allergy issues over the last 15 years to climate change, although meteorologists resist making such conclusions based on one warm season.
What they do agree on is that winter in our part of the country appears to have been made milder by El Niño, the warm currents visiting the Pacific Ocean near the equator.
“It was intense enough to give us substantially warmer temperatures in the afternoon hours,” said Jonathan Welsh of the National Weather Service station at Pleasant Hill.
For the months of December through February, afternoon high temperatures averaged 46.2 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Weather Service station in Pleasant Hill. That’s the fifth warmest on record for that period dating back to 1888.
The warmest average afternoon high for those months was 46.9 degrees in 1932. The historical average is 40.5 degrees.
The other unique feature of the most recent three-month span — which weather people call the “meteorological winter” of 2016 — was the dearth of snow.
Overall precipitation was about normal, but from December through February snowfall at Kansas City International Airport totaled only 5.3 inches. That’s the 10th lowest accumulation on record. Last year we recorded 13.7 inches, about an inch below the historical average.
It’s been four years since a Kansas City winter has been warmer or less snowy. But let’s not think about 2012, when the balmy state of things ushered in a stifling drought that persisted through the following year.
For now area residents can enjoy the savings on their heat bills. Just last week, Missouri Gas Energy announced it would seek its second rate decrease since last autumn. If the newest cut is approved, the average residential customer will save more than $80 a year on natural-gas costs compared to rates of spring 2015, the utility said.
MGE president Steve Lindsey attributed the lower bills to “abundant supplies of the natural gas and warmer temperatures in our area.”
However, forecasters stress that winter is not done. Some plants could be at risk if they continue to bud before temperatures take a sharp dive.
“The concern we have is what may happen down the road,” said Dennis Patton, a horticulturalist for K-State Research and Extension in Olathe. “Let’s say we stay warm a while and then get a cold snap — temperatures in the low 20s. All that succulent growth is going to be killed back.”
More than anybody, Kansas growers of hard red winter wheat are hoping to stay clear of a bitter spring. The mild early months of 2007 had them gazing at some of the lushest crops they had ever seen, but then came what is still remembered as the “Easter freeze.”
It struck at the worst time in winter wheat’s development. Farmers suffered in one cold weekend one of the most devastating crop losses in memory.
Your pets also may wind up on the losing end. Decent rains but little snow can bring ticks, heartworms and other threats earlier than usual and in greater numbers.
The warm, moist effects of El Niño are expected to linger for at least a few more months. After then, who knows? Climatologist Mary Knapp of Kansas State University cautions that El Niños have been known to shift into a feminine alter ego, La Niña.
That phenomenon is marked by lower sea surface temperatures. And it can bring its own set of problems to Kansas City.
“We are likely to have a damp spring because of El Niño. But if then we have an abrupt transition to La Niña, that’s like someone shutting off the faucet,” said Knapp.
So our lawns could be parched and cracking by September.
On the other hand, might a dryer-than-average summer relieve some allergy symptoms?
Perhaps, said allergist Dinakar. But for sufferers such as Jamie Russell of Lee’s Summit, not even sinus surgery last April slowed the onset of allergies and infections this year.
“Runny nose. Itchy eyes,” said Russell of herself, her husband and toddler Evelyn. “You already can feel it in a big way.”