What does this winter’s extreme cold mean for the growing season?

Question: Is there a correlation between the extreme cold weather we’ve been having and this year’s growing season?


Photo: karmablue (www.flickr.com)

Answer: After this winter, everyone is asking about the next season. The often-asked question is whether a cold winter is related to a cold spring and summer. The very simple answer is not really; unfortunately, our climate system is a lot more complex than that to follow logical patterns.

This winter has been one of the coldest on record, and throughout the United States a number of records have been reset in terms of low temperatures. We’ve also had ice on the Great Lakes that we haven’t seen for the last 40 years. The natural question is, will this pattern persist and bring a cold spring and summer? If we examine weather records for the United States, you can find years in which a cold spring follows a bitter cold winter, or a very warm spring follows a warm winter. However, for the vast majority of the years, there is a very weak relationship between winter and spring or summer conditions.

The reason for this lack of relationship is the global circulation patterns, which cause extreme shifts between seasons and different weather patterns to emerge, resulting in a weak relationship among seasons. The easiest way to think about this for the mid-latitudes is that our weather is very chaotic within a given season and even more chaotic among seasons.

The climate pattern we’ll have for the next few years is that this variability will increase within a year and among years. So, we can expect more extremes of cold and hot, wet and dry. And that will lead to more people asking another question: What is going on with our weather?

–Answered by Jerry Hatfield, USDA-Agricultural Research Service

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2 responses to “What does this winter’s extreme cold mean for the growing season?

  1. I think of this question more in terms of what the cold winter means to the next season’s pest populations (eg, insects, fungi, viruses, and carryover weeds), the potential for flooding, and possible delays in planting because of soil conditions after this year’s snow cover and frost depth.

    • Posted on behalf of Jerry Hatfield, USDA-ARS, Ames, Iowa:

      When spring refuses to come because of a lingering cold winter, everything changes. There will be delayed planting of crops this year because the frost has not gone from the soil, and we have frozen to record depths across some parts of Iowa. The extent to which this delays planting will depend upon the weather conditions over the next few weeks; right now, the projected below normal temperatures don’t provide confidence for a rapid turnaround from what we’ve been experiencing.

      The flooding problem from snow melt seems to have been minimal because of the slow melt across the Midwest. The impacts on insects, diseases, fungi, and weeds will be noticeable; however, much of this will depend upon summer conditions in terms of the number of life cycles and the conditions which control the pests’ rate of development. Cold winters certainly reduce the populations of pests; however, they possess a remarkable ability to recover quickly. So don’t put away the bug spray.

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