NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

January 8, 2013

Why we'd prefer a miserable New England winter


Newburyport Daily News

---- — This is the usual time of year when we New Englanders gripe about the weather, hunker down during the short days and long nights, and hope for a kinder and warmer winter.

Interesting though, we got that kind of winter last year, and we paid dearly for it last spring and summer.

Everything is a balance in nature, and so we prefer something that might not be very popular. We hope that things will return to those kinds of winters that we locals love to grumble about, if only so that it makes the spring and summer a little more pleasant and New England-like.

Last year was a record-breaker in terms of unseasonably warm weather and scant snow. Winter hardly visited us. Snowfall was well less than a foot, and the temperatures were mild throughout the entire season. It was more like a typical winter in Virginia or North Carolina.

But within weeks of the end of the “winter,” the oddball nature stories started rolling out. In some areas, fruit trees bloomed too early and then got socked by a light frost. Mosquitoes emerged weeks earlier than normal, making for an unusually long mosquito season – and the worst year for mosquito-borne West Nile virus.

Bugs of all types that normally don’t overwinter very well, survived the winter of 2011-12 quite well, and so there was an unusually fierce infestation of certain types of insects. They plagued those of us who carefully tend our lawns and gardens.

Several veterinarians in the area have also reported that 2012 was a banner year for fleas. Again, the theory was that a mild winter allowed insects to survive the winter in stronger numbers.

More alarming to us, given the growth of Lyme disease, was the impact the mild winter had on the tick population. The disease is spread by deer ticks, but recent research has shown that mice and small mammals play a much more important role in the spread of the disease than deer. The perfect storm of mice, weather and ticks occurred last winter, causing a notable spike in Lyme disease.

Ticks were already in a growth cycle, due to an unusual factor – a large yield in acorns the prior year, which in turn boosted the mouse population. Mice are one of the most important “blood meals” for deer ticks. The acorn crop was small last winter, which crashed the mouse population, and sent ticks searching for new blood hosts. The mild weather is said to have had a significant impact on tick behavior, because they tend to start looking for new hosts when the temperature rises above freezing. And so the unusually large tick population began looking for victims far earlier in the season than normal. Reports of Lyme disease increased.

Changes were also evident in the ocean. Our local ocean waters saw species of fish arriving off our shores that should be 100 or more miles south of here, and other longtime natives -- like Maine shrimp -- disappeared to the north.

And of course, there were a few uncomfortably warm days in midsummer.

It was a strange year, one that didn’t feel quite right for our region of the country. And the mild winter last year was one of the leading causes.

So there is something good, healthy, and maybe even purifying about having a long, cold New England winter.

Bring on the zero-degree days. Let’s light the fires in the old fireplaces, break out the quilts and good books, skis and sleds, and get lots of exercise scraping the ice off the windshield. We can gripe about it now, and hopefully, we’ll have a little less to gripe about when the warm rays of spring and summer come around.