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'Warming up mighty early' across parts of US

People enjoy the warm weather near the Washington Monument in Washington, Thursday, March 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
People enjoy the warm weather near the Washington Monument in Washington, Thursday, March 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)Susan Walsh / AP

So now that March feels like May in much of the U.S., what's May going to feel like? The East Coast and South can expect above-normal temperatures, federal forecasters announced Thursday -- a day when Atlanta and Chicago were among the cities that posted new daily highs.

After a brief cooling, the warm spell should continue through the rest of March, especially in the East, and into early summer across the South as well, said Ed O'Lenic, chief of operations at the U.S. Climate Prediction Center.

"It's warming up mighty early," he added.

Signs of a premature spring range from early cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., to farmers preparing to plant.


"This warm weather will advance crops beyond where they normally are," Reuters quoted meteorologist Joel Burgio of Telvent DTN as saying.

Wheat in the South was ahead of normal, Burgio said, fruit trees are blooming early in the Southeast, and Midwest farmers will be lured into starting spring field work earlier than usual.

"The concern is that if a sudden change to colder weather comes after this very warm interlude, then you could have some crop problems," he said.

But the Climate Prediction Center wasn't expecting that. "Above-average temperatures this spring are most likely from the Desert Southwest through the central and southern Great Plains, the Great Lakes, and the Eastern U.S.," the center said of its three-month outlook, "while the Pacific Northwest and Alaska are favored to be cooler than average."

This week, dozens of cities have seen temperatures above 80 degrees and much of the region has been 30 degrees warmer than normal.

On Thursday, Atlanta saw 82 degrees Fahrenheit, a degree warmer than its previous record for a March 15 back in 1973. Chicago broke its record with 77 degrees, 3 more than in 1995. 

On Wednesday, 307 sites across the country -- the vast majority in the Midwest -- broke their record for the warmest March 14. Ninety-three tied their record.

The same was in store for the rest of the week as well, though a notable exception to the warmth has been the Pacific Northwest where snow, ice and rain have kept winter alive.

This time last year, officials were worried about a heavy winter snowpack and its potential to create massive flooding -- a scenario that played out in many areas.

Now, however, the threat isn't snow and flooding but heat and drought.

"What a difference a year makes," Laura Furgione, deputy director of the National Weather Service, told reporters at the agency's annual Spring Outlook news conference.

The drought concerns focus on west Texas and New Mexico -- and more recently Georgia, three-quarters of which is in severe, extreme or exceptional drought.


Drought and dry weather also raise the chances of wildfires.

In the Chicago suburbs, warmer weather was tied to four brush fires in three counties. One destroyed a bar and killed six horses, the Morris Daily Herald reported.

"It does seem like these fires are popping up early," local fire chief Ron Hoehne told the Daily Herald. "I can only assume it's because of a lack of snow or rain so far this year."

So is global warming behind the temperature increase? While "extreme events like we've seen are consistent" with warming, O'Lenic said when asked at the news conference, "it's impossible to connect any single event like this one with climate change." 

D.C. Cherry Blossom Festival blooms early

He also cited two naturally occuring factors: La Nina and what's known as the Arctic Oscillation, a measure of changing atmospheric pressure.

The Arctic Oscillation flipped from last year, when it helped create conditions for heavy snow, O'Lenic noted, so this winter has seen "the other side of the AO coin," with cold Arctic air being blocked from coming down into the U.S.

Last winter also saw a strong La Nina, a cooling of the Pacific Ocean, that lasted through spring and impacted weather globally. La Nina did return this winter, he added, but this time it "is fading fairly rapidly."

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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