Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

February 27, 2014

MARK BENNETT: The blessings of a long, cold, snowy winter in Indiana

Pests could be less plentiful; gardens should start strong.

Kokomo Tribune

---- — As spring, summer arrive, Hoosiers will appre­ciate icy months (well, maybe a little).

Queue up Richie Havens’ husky baritone.

“Little darlin’, I feel that ice is slowly melting; little darlin’, it seems like years since it’s been clear; here comes the sun.”

Never more true? Maybe that conclusion exaggerates this winter’s severity. It’s close, though. “It’s the coldest and snowiest winter [in central Indiana] in 32 years,” Al Shipe, hydrologist at the National Weather Service in Indianapolis, said Friday. The winter of 1981-82 topped it, in terms of the combination of low temperatures and heavy snowfall.

Wabash Valley residents don’t need precipitation measurements, thermometer readings and freeze-line depths to believe they’ve just experienced a long, cold, snowy winter. Until the sun came last week, snow and ice had covered the ground since people were vacuuming the crushed taco chips from New Year’s Eve out of their couch cushions. Chances are, if they didn’t take down the outside Christmas lights in the 40-degree warmth of New Year’s Day, they’re still hanging on the gutters. (Sorry if that’s a sore subject at your place.) Regardless, since then we’ve all developed deeper relationships with our snow shovels, the power company’s report-an-outage hotline, tow trucks, black ice, windshield scrapers and shoes sprinkled with salt and sand.

Recounting all that feels like whining, though. As a young woman walking out of the Tribune-Star building recently and into the latest round of horizontal snowfall declared, to no one in particular, “If anybody mentions the weather, they’re getting throat-punched.”

Drawing on that inspiration, let’s celebrate good throat health and look at the upsides of this winter. (It does actually have upsides.)

• It’s almost over. Yes, the spring equinox doesn’t arrive until March 20, but forget that.

“Meteorological winter” ends Feb. 28, Shipe explained. Sunday, the winter of 2014 hits the history books. After that, any subsequent snow or sub-freezing temps should be blamed on the March lion.

• Lawns, gardens and crops should start strong and may thrive through spring and perhaps into summer, thanks to the protracted presence of heavy snowfall and chilly temperatures. Snow and rains may offset the lingering impact of the drought of 2012. “Especially with the drought a couple years ago, this should replenish some of the watersheds,” said Rob Jean, assistant professor of ecology at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

The primary farm crop underway now is winter wheat. Typically, bitter-cold temperatures could’ve harmed the wheat. The addition of a deep, long-lasting snow cover insulated the plants, so they should fare better, said Ken Scheeringa, associate state climatologist at the Indiana State Climate Office on the Purdue University campus.

Golf courses and backyards will look greener. Better tune up that mower.

• Some pesky bugs — some — will be less plentiful in the warm-weather months.

Insects that torment Hoosier farm crops spend winter in three different ways — above ground, below ground or out of state. Those that camped out above ground this December, January and February may drop in population. Bean-leaf beetles winter in barns and sheds and “will likely take a beating” in numbers, said Christian Krupke, associate professor of entomology at Purdue. Soybean aphids may take a hit, too.

Critters that stay below ground could fare better, because the snow blanket shielded them from the cold. On the other hand, farmers have told Jean the soil freeze line has reached 18 inches or more this winter. “Some will be killed off, but others have that amazing ability to just thaw out and be fine,” Jean said.

What about the “Big M” — mosquitoes? Their ranks may dwindle, some. Mosquitoes spend winter both above and below ground, Krupke said. Their outcome is hard to tell, for now. Jean pointed out that Alaska is notorious for its thick, big mosquito population, so Indiana’s abnormally rough winter may not kill off as many of the flying pests as we suspect, but at least it shouldn’t cause larger swarms. Indeed, cold winters work better than bug spray.

Disease-spreading and invasive critters may be slowed, as well. According to climate experts cited in the Ontario Record in Canada — they spell every winter with a capital W there — ticks and invaders such as gypsy moths, European beetles and emerald ash borers could decrease this summer.

• Waterways should be refreshed, boosting aquatic wildlife, the Record reported. Look for a solid fishing season. Groundwater should also benefit, Jean said, as any contaminants are diluted.

• Notice fewer rodents lately? “I’ve had way fewer mice than I’ve had in the past,” Jean said, “and I’d bet their population’s been affected.”

That also means their predators may die of starvation, he added.

Our memories tend to shorten in adverse times. Jean sees the mild winters of the previous few years as more of a fluke than the frigid blast of 2014. “To me, this is almost like going back to a more natural cycle this year,” he said.

Thick scarves for everyone next winter.

Mark Bennett is a columnist for the Tribune-Star of Terre Haute. Contact him at mark.bennett@tribstar.com.