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Get ready for a 60-degree Christmas in Southold this year

12/23/2015 12:00 PM |

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Raspberries, with their vibrant red hue and succulent sweetness, tend to be a summer crop.

Certain varieties, such as the Tula Magic grown at Orient’s Oysterponds Farm, will bloom almost continuously, according to farm co-owner Tom Stevenson. But even then, most plants are dormant by Halloween or Thanksgiving at the latest.

Well, not this year.

Last week, mere days away from Christmas, several Tula Magic raspberries popped up on the vine, an unexpected reminder that this December hasn’t really felt like winter at all.

“We’re already doing season extension, but this is another extreme,” Mr. Stevenson said. “You knew it was unseasonably warm, but I was really taken aback by this.”

This has been one of the warmest Decembers on record for Long Island — and the entire Northeast — with temperatures that call more for ugly holiday T-shirts than ugly sweaters.

At the National Weather Service station in Islip, this year’s average temperature from Dec. 1 to 20 was 47.7 degrees, a full 10.5 degrees above the normal December temperature on record there.

In Mattituck, the average temperature through the first 20 days of the month was a similar 47 degrees with a single-day high of 59 degrees on Dec. 12, according to data recorded by Leonard Llewellyn, a cooperative observer for the NWS. That is nine degrees warmer than the first 20 days of December 2014.

That puts December 2015 on pace to be the warmest since at least 1984, the earliest year for which data is available from the Islip station. The previous record was 41.2 degrees, set in both 1984 and 2001. This means that, in its first three weeks, this December has been more than six degrees warmer than average.

And with Islip forecasting 64 degrees for Christmas Eve and 58 degrees for Christmas Day, it’s possible that average will increase even more. In short, this month might not just surpass the record for December — it might smash it altogether.

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Farmer Tom Stevenson of Oysterponds Farm shows off some raspberries till on the vine in December. (Credit: Vera Chinese)

Few would complain about that, however, especially since some meteorologists claim the unusual warmth is more a result of El Niño — a cyclical pattern of warm currents in the Pacific — and less a foreboding sign of climate change. The effects of El Niño could last through the winter, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For some on the North Fork, including construction workers and farmers, the balmy temperatures have actually been beneficial.

Vincent Orlando, Southold Town’s highway superintendent, said his department was still repairing roads as of Friday. Cold temperatures tend to prevent the laying of asphalt, so under more typical circumstances, workers would have had to stop road repairs by now.

“We were able to catch up on spring- and fall-type projects that we normally wouldn’t do in December,” he said. “It was such a relief. I greeted the warm weather with open arms because we were able to continue paving and fix some of the horrendous roads.”

Mr. Orlando indicated that the weather has also helped his department financially since there’s no need to pay for sand or salt in preparation for snowfall or to pay overtime for plow drivers.

After a brutal start to 2015 that dumped several feet of snow on their lots, some local car dealers are taking advantage of the unexpected warm weather.

“The snow is one thing, but the cold — people didn’t want to come out when it was just so cold,” said Howie Lucas of Southold’s Lucas Ford. “I think people feel better when the weather is nice. I think they’re in a better mood to go out and make a big purchase … In the auto business, when the weather’s nice, it’s good for us.”

Unfortunately, the balmy air has claimed at least one casualty: the ice-skating rink in Greenport’s Mitchell Park. The rink was supposed to open Monday, but with temperatures so high, the village had to cancel that plan.

“We won’t be opening until further notice — we have to be at the mercy of the weather,” said village clerk Sylvia Pirillo.

Another possible benefit this year is that traditional winter illnesses are weakened by warmer weather. Dr. Susan Donelan, clinical assistant professor of infectious diseases at Stony Brook University, pointed to a 2007 study that found the influenza virus to be “more stable,” or stronger, in cold weather.

“In general the other respiratory viruses act similarly to influenza in regards to transmissibility,” she wrote in an email.

However, the cold weather that propagates the flu also kills off most causes of seasonal allergies.

“Once a hard frost has hit, many allergens die off, and certainly a cover of snow will physically separate the allergy sufferer from most outdoor allergens during wintertime,” Dr. Donelan wrote. “Also, trees, grasses, etc., are not actively growing [and, thus, not producing pollen and other common allergens], so they are not present in the outdoor environment during the cold weather.”

The warmth has also helped certain aspects of agriculture on the North Fork, according to Sandra Menasha, Cornell Cooperative Extension’s vegetable and potato specialist. Since the temperatures have not yet dropped low enough to induce crop-killing frost, farmers have been able to continue harvesting fall crops like spinach, lettuce and brussels sprouts.

“The growers are able to extend their season and harvest later into the season, and that leads to increased sales and a little boost in profits for them,” Ms. Menasha said. “With the winter markets that happen — the Riverhead farmers market that happens all winter long — this has definitely been a boost for what they have been able to provide.”

Grapes, however, are unlikely to be affected either way, said Alice Wise, CCE’s viticulture specialist. The only potential change is that vineyard workers will be able to prune the vines in more pleasant conditions.

“It hasn’t been at all a disadvantage for grapes,” she said. “It doesn’t really affect the flavors or aromas of the vine.”

And, of course, those stray raspberries have popped up — berries that Mr. Stevenson said are perfectly edible even if they have a lower sugar content and aren’t quite as firm as usual.

After a warm summer with below-average rainfall, many farmers are happy the weather has been so helpful.

“This year was almost ideal, and everyone will say that,” Mr. Stevenson said. “We would rather water [our crops] than get deluged.”

[email protected]

With Vera Chinese

Photo Caption: Raspberries growing on the vine on Thursday, Dec. 17 at Oysterponds Farm in Orient. (Credit: Vera Chinese)

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