Wisconsin’s brutal winter will prove beneficial during spring and summer

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When the air temperature is minus 10 degrees or snow is falling fast and heavy, most Homo sapiens are more concerned with getting indoors than contemplating the sunny side of the weather. But there are positives that come with winters like the one winding down in Wisconsin.

And the end of winter is near, really.

“Climatologically, Valentine’s Day is the beginning of the end,” said Dr. Jonathan E. Martin, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the UW-Madison. People probably have noticed the sun peeking out a bit more and setting later in the evening. “That just makes it nearly impossible to create those frigid air masses.”

Martin is an expert on mid-latitude weather systems, snowstorms and climate change. For him, winter is “full of mystery, full of things to think about.”

On Feb. 14, as temperatures edged into the low 20s in southeastern Wisconsin, Martin was pondering the positives winter weather can deliver. “Clearly, there are benefits,” he said.

An obvious one, said Martin, is the boost to the economy.

“Winter tourism really spikes in a year like this,” he said.

There’s been snow on the ground in many parts of the state since before Dec. 1, a plus for freestyle skiers and .farmers. 

“That can keep the ground relatively frost-free,” said Martin. “That’s really going to be a benefit for farmers in the spring, when they go to turn the soil. That’s a distinct advantage in the winter we’ve had. Severe cold without snow could have been devastating, but with a modicum of snow like we’ve had this year, well, we are in a really good position in terms of the condition of the soil at the beginning of the agricultural season.”

Scientists also are projecting that the protracted frigid temperatures killed off insect pests — or at least slowed the advance of some invasive species.

“Populations of insect pests that (spend winter)  in Wisconsin will be suppressed,” said Dr. William F. Tracy, a professor in the department of agronomy at UW-Madison. “We may see fewer Japanese beetles and cucumber beetles and their kin. Some crop diseases will also be suppressed.”

Scientists and conservationists are paying particular attention to the fate of the invasive emerald ash borer, an insect native to Asia that arrived in the United States around 2002 and killed about 50 million ash trees in the upper Midwest. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says the insect is a threat to all of Wisconsin’s native ash species — and there are hundreds of thousands of ash trees in the state.

The deep freeze probably killed at least some larvae, according to Robert Venette, a U.S. Forest Service research biologist in St. Paul, Minn. He told The Associated Press recently that a reading of minus 20 will usually produce a 50 percent mortality rate, and “the numbers go up quickly as it gets colder than that.”

The cold also may have affected the gypsy moth, the hemlock woolly adelgid and the European beetle carrying Dutch elm disease. 

“There are bound to be some pests that will struggle with their population,” said Martin, who has been focused on winter for most of his life.

He grew up in New England and first thought about the mysteries of the season as a boy. He started working a morning paper route in his neighborhood about a year after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.

“I was the first kid who put footprints in the snow and it reminded me of Neil Armstrong,” Martin said.

Wisconsinites who’ve been made miserable by the weather — the 10th coldest in the state since record-keeping began — may be rejoicing with spring just a calendar page away.

Martin, however, is “starting to get sad when it’s starting to warm up.”

And that warm up?

“It’s right on schedule,” he said.

AP contributed to this story

Brr-ning fat

Sure, cold and flu season arrives with winter. But scientists say there also are health benefits that cold temperatures can deliver.

The human body has two types of fat — white fat and brown fat. Brown fat is the calorie-burning fat that babies need to regulate temperatures. Much of it disappears with age, but not all. Dutch researchers have found that cooler temperatures can fire up and burn the brown fat cells.

Meanwhile, Finish researchers found that women who took cold-water plunges and whole-body cryotherapy sessions showed a surge in norepinephrine, a chemical in the nervous system that can help suppress pain.

Source: Harvard Medical School

The return of daylight

On Feb. 20, the day this issue of Wisconsin Gazette reaches the public, daylight in Milwaukee will increase by two minutes and 48 seconds over the previous day. By March 6, when the next issue arrives, daylight will be increasing at a rate of two minutes and 55 seconds daily. 

Overall, daylight during the two-week period will increase from 10 hours, 47 minutes and 35 seconds to 11 hours, 27 minutes and 51 seconds.

And daylight will continue to expand at a rapid rate. In fact, the length of daylight grows faster in March than during any other month of the year.

On June 20, the longest day of the year, the length of daylight in Milwaukee will max out at 15 hours, 22 minutes and 6 seconds. On that day, the sun will rise at 5:12 a.m. and set at 8:34 p.m.

Unfortunately, the next day will lose a second of daylight and the seasonal slide to autumn will begin anew.

It’s unavoidable.

— Louis Weisberg