Friday, January 5, 2007

Those waiting to walk in a winter wonderland can keep waiting.

The unseasonably balmy weather that has become common for the D.C. area so far this winter looks as if it’s going to stay through the weekend.

The brittle, bone-chilling days of winter that usually set upon the region this time of year have yet to happen. Short-sleeved shirts and light jackets have been the order of the day, with the 50- and 60-degree temperatures rendering heavy winter coats, gloves and scarves unnecessary.

Even some cherry blossoms, which usually don’t begin to show until late March, have begun to bloom.

“Last year, we didn’t see temperatures like this until March 27,” said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Silver Spring. “So we’re way ahead of schedule.”

Last month was the 10th-warmest December since 1871, according to National Weather Service records at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

The average temperature for December was 44.2 degrees, nearly five degrees warmer than the December average temperature of 39.5 degrees.

Area residents took advantage of the warm weather.

Tops on most convertibles were down, joggers broke out the shorts, and city dwellers hit the National Zoo — activities usually reserved for springtime.

Sarah Thrasher, 20, of Warrenton, Va., said the warm weather had been a highlight of her winter break from Brigham Young University in Utah, where a storm dumped about 2 feet of snow just before she left for home.

At home in Warrenton, about 45 miles west of the District, she and her family slept on a trampoline under the stars on Christmas Eve.

“We were going to go up to Maine, but since it was 60 degrees, we decided just to stay here and enjoy the weather,” Miss Thrasher said as she headed into the zoo yesterday. “It’s been great.”

But Mr. Feltgen warns that winter is just beginning and that conditions could quickly change.

“The temperatures will continue to average out above normal through January and February,” Mr. Feltgen said yesterday. “But we still have a lot of winter left to go. It only takes one storm to change things.”

Mr. Feltgen said the mild weather is mainly a result of the El Nino condition, also known as a Pacific warm episode. The Pacific Ocean is in the midst of one of the cycles, during which the ocean is warmer than usual.

El Nino conditions came along once a decade from the 1950s through the 1970s, occurring in the 1957-58, 1965-66, and 1972-73 winters, Weather Service officials said.

But they have occurred seven times since 1982, the most recent coming in the 2002-03 winter.

“They happen every few years now, with no rhyme or reason to it,” Mr. Feltgen said.

Officials with the Washington D.C. Convention and Tourism Corp. said it is difficult to tell what effect the weather has had on tourism. The tourism industry is gauged largely by financial reports from the hotel industry, which normally goes through a down period in the winter.

“December and January are usually pretty slow times of the year for tourism,” said Rebecca Pawlowski, the corporation’s director of communications. “So there’s no real effect that we’ve been able to discern.”

Miss Pawlowski said she wouldn’t mind a little snow, but is wary of possible damage such harsh weather can have on the tourism industry.

“We’ll keep our fingers crossed that there’s no effect on the cherry blossoms,” she said.

Though some cherry trees in the region have begun to bloom, National Park Service chief horticulturist Rob DeFeo said there’s no need to worry about a premature cherry blossom season around the Tidal Basin.

The variety of trees in bloom this week is sometimes referred to as the winter-blossoming cherry. Those trees often will bloom during a warm spell even when spring is months away.

The famous cherry trees around the Tidal Basin are a different variety.

Mr. DeFeo said the current warm spell won’t have any effect on the way those trees bloom in the spring.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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