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Brides Toast Outdoor Weddings as Fruit Growers Fret Forecast

Above-normal U.S. temperatures that have depressed natural gas prices and threatened some crops are being celebrated by brides with outdoor ceremonies and cocktails in March.

A streak that led to the fourth-warmest U.S. winter on record will continue for the next three months, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said. States in the south, mid-Atlantic and New England regions will have at least a 33 percent chance of warm weather from March through May, NOAA said.

Unseasonable spring temperatures mean Washington’s cherry trees may reach their peak bloom before planners of the capital’s National Cherry Blossom Festival expected. Crops such as apples and apricots could be damaged by frost. In the winners column are brides-to-be who book weddings during the less-expensive off-peak month of March while enjoying May-like weather.

“Two years ago we had a snowstorm in March,” Tara Buchanan, a wedding planner with EBE Events and Entertainment in Philadelphia, said in an interview. “Now these brides are over the moon that they’re able to have outdoor ceremonies and cocktail parties in March.”

Temperatures around the U.S. have been as high as 35 degrees Fahrenheit (19.4 Celsius) above normal in the past week, with 400 record highs set on March 14, said Laura Furgione, deputy director of the National Weather Service. Temperatures in Detroit reached 75 degrees this week, 30 degrees above normal, according to the National Weather Service office in White Lake, Michigan. Last March 14 temperatures reached 39.

`May-like Warmth'

“We’re already feeling May-like warmth in parts of the country this week,” Furgione said yesterday in a conference call by U.S. weather agencies with reporters.

Expenditures for natural gas, the primary fuel used to heat about half of U.S. homes, are on track to be the lowest in nine years, primarily because of warm weather, the Energy Department said. The average household is expected to pay about $629 to heat with natural gas this winter, down 13 percent from last winter and the lowest since the 2002-2003 season.

NOAA’s forecast for March, April and May calls for temperatures about one degree above normal with one or two extreme temperature events over the period, according to Ed O’Lenic, chief of the operations branch of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. Though demand for power during the spring typically wanes, temperature spikes could present challenges for utilities if air conditioners get switched on, according to Paul Patterson, a New York-based analyst for Glenrock Associates LLC.

Power Plants

“There are a large number of units taken down for regular maintenance,” Patterson said in an interview. “If you have a situation where you have a strong increase in demand, it can have a disproportionate impact.”

Natural gas for April delivery fell 0.5 cent, or 0.2 percent, to settle at $2.279 per million British thermal units on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The futures, which are down 24 percent this year, fell to $2.204 on March 13, the lowest intraday price since Feb. 15, 2002.

In New Jersey, February averaged 38.5 degrees, 4.7 degrees above the 1981-2000 normal, according to the Office of the New Jersey State Climatologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Vegetation is two to three weeks ahead of typical bloom, and magnolias, cherry trees and spring bulbs are nearing peak in some areas of the Garden State.

Cherry Blossom Festival

Office workers in the New Jersey Statehouse turned on window air conditioners March 14 as temperatures reached 74 degrees, 4 degrees short of the record set in 1990, according to NOAA. The normal high is 51 degrees.

Unseasonably warm temperatures are vexing organizers of the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington. The festival begins March 20 and planners were expecting blossoms along the Tidal Basin and around the Jefferson Memorial to peak between March 24-31.

Now, the National Park Service is predicting the Yoshino cherry trees peak bloom, when 70 percent of the blossoms are open, to be between March 20 and 23. The average peak bloom occurs on April 4.

This winter in the contiguous U.S. was the warmest since the record winter of 2000, the climate center said. Meteorologists designate winter as being from Dec. 1 to Feb. 29. The calendar start to spring is based on the equinox.

Crops Confused

Crops such as apples and apricots are also confused by the warmer-than-normal weather, according to David Wolfe, a plant and soil scientist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Buds that start opening earlier than normal become vulnerable to frost damage that can ultimately reduce fruit yields.

Farmers watch such trends and adjust planting schedules annually, Wolfe said. Peaches typically grown in Georgia may someday be an option for New York while apples may flourish in Canada.

“We’re really worried about frost damage this spring because if temperatures get anywhere back to near normal, we’re likely to have a few frost events,” Wolfe said in an interview. “The longer this warm period in the middle of winter gets, the more vulnerable they get.”

A warm spring means a shorter season for East Coast ski resorts that have already suffered at the expense of warmer winter temperatures. In four of the last five years, the Sugarbush ski resort in Warren, Vermont, has been open through the first week of May, according to Winthrop Smith Jr., a former Merrill Lynch & Co. executive whose company, Summit Ventures, owns the resort.

Spring Skiing

“If the NOAA forecast is accurate, that’s probably unlikely this year,” Smith said in an interview. “It does make a difference. Right now the spring skiing is fabulous.”

The bad news for skiers is good news for brides who are increasingly taking advantage of warmer winter and early spring weather, Buchanan said. February or March weddings, which are now more likely to include outdoor options, can be as much as 25 percent cheaper than May or June affairs, Buchanan said.

“It used to be that you could never do anything outside after October,” Buchanan said. “I had an outdoor ceremony in December.”

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