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Warm March set path for 'spectacular' start to spring, but cold temperatures loom

| Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Spring dawned in Technicolor in Pittsburgh and elsewhere in the country because of the warmest March on record, horticulturists say.

"The interesting thing is the number of things that are blooming at the same time," said Nancy Knauss, a horticultural educator with Penn State Extension in Allegheny County. "We've had quite a showy, spectacular spring."

But that show is on hold for a little while, and the "spectacular" could be under a threat of being ruined.

A chance for snow is forecast after midnight, though there's little chance of accumulation. It's a taste of the winter that wasn't, said Rihaan Gangat, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Moon.

"Winter was above normal," Gangat said.

A mass of cold air in southern Canada will bring instability -- and a 40 percent chance of snow through Wednesday -- to Western Pennsylvania, Gangat said. Today's high is expected to be 44 degrees; the low tonight, 33.

Plants should be OK, Knauss said.

"A lot of plants can survive temperatures in the 30s," she said.

But some others could be damaged.

Farmers weren't that fortunate in late March, scrambling to minimize damage from frost as they fanned apple trees and irrigated peach and apple trees.

Lows will continue to hover around 30 until Saturday, when forecasters expect the low to be 57, according to the weather service.

The weather service on Monday said several U.S. cities, including Pittsburgh, set a record for their warmest March. Temperatures in the lower 48 states were 8.6 degrees above normal for the month and 6 degrees higher than average for the first three months of the year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That far exceeds records.

Typically, March temperatures average 42.5 degrees nationally. This year, the average hit 51.1, which is closer to the average for April. Only one other time, in January 2006, did the country as a whole experience warmer-than-normal temperatures for an entire month.

This year, at least 7,775 weather stations across the nation broke daily high-temperature records in March. More than 7,515 broke records for nighttime heat.

That prompted plants that prefer a "slower spring" to bloom ahead of schedule, Knauss said.

"It was glorious," she said.

Golfers at Three Lakes Golf Course in Penn Hills were able to play in February because of mild weather, said pro shop staffer Troy Williams, 23, of Penn Hills.

"It's been a huge difference over last year," he said. "Because of all the rain, we practically didn't get the season started until about May."

The magnitude of the unusual weather alarmed some meteorologists. One climate scientist called it the weather equivalent of a baseball player on steroids, obliterating records.

"Everybody has this uneasy feeling. This is weird. This is not good," said Jerry Meehl, a climate scientist who specializes in extreme weather at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. "It's a guilty pleasure. You're out enjoying this nice March weather, but you know it's not a good thing."

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