From wild weather to low water levels, cherry shortages to dairy cliffs, Northern Michigan has been buzzing about unusual environmental and agricultural conditions taking place this year.
To answer some of the most pressing questions facing the region in 2013, The Ticker rounded up local experts to give readers the lowdown on what to expect over the next 12 months.
Q: What's the deal with the freakishly warm weather (this week not withstanding)?
A: It's not just your imagination – according to TV 7&4 News metereologist Joe Charlevoix, 2012 came in as the warmest year on record for Northern Michigan. And the trend doesn't show signs of slowing: 12 of the 14 warmest years on record worldwide have happened since 2000.
“The long periods of cold and big snows like we had in the 1970s don't happen anymore...the numbers bear it out,” says Charlevoix, adding that it's likely we could see milder winters continuing.
Winter lovers can take some comfort in that the coldest temperatures of the season are set to hit this week, leading to increased lake effect snow production. But the rest of the year will likely continue its warming trend, with Charlevoix predicting above-average temperatures for summer and fall.
Q: Why are the lake levels so low? Will they return to normal soon?
A: Andy Knott, executive director at The Watershed Center, says the Great Lakes typically fluctuate on a 30-year cycle between peak periods. The record high was in 1986, so theoretically, the next high point should be in 2016. However, because the region has experienced a drought for the last 12-15 years – which Knott compares to the Dust Bowl years of the late 1930s, which also had extended periods of low water in the Great Lakes – it's unlikely we'll recover to record highs in three years' time.
However – “it is normal for lake levels to fluctuate, and it's beneficial for coastal wetlands,” says Knott. And in spite of the economic impacts – on shipping, recreation and tourism-based waterfront towns – Knott says proposed solutions for dredging should be carefully considered. “Existing marinas and channels” are OK, he says, but dredging new areas can harm bottomland fish habitats and “should be discouraged.”
Q: What happened to cherry and apple crops last year? Will there be more fruit available this year?
A: 2012 was a devastating year for Michigan farmers, who experienced almost total failure for some crops when freakishly warm temperatures in March were followed by freezes in April, wiping out 95 percent of the state's tart cherry crop, 90 percent of the peach crop and 90 percent of the apple crop.
Dr. Nikki Rothwell, coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center, says there is good news amid the bad: Local growers now have the potential to harvest a large tree crop in 2013 (provided the weather cooperates), since “trees did not use as much of their energy to set and ripen fruit last season” and so will have “more than adequate reserves...to produce a large crop.” Pent-up demand from 2012 could also result in stronger sales for Michigan growers, who Rothwell says are determined to “win back customers that had to go elsewhere for fruit” in 2012.
Q: What's the status of the federal Farm Bill? What impact does it have on Michigan?
A: The government's central agricultural policy, renewed every five years by Congress, came front and center this fall during controversial “fiscal cliff” discussions. After the House of Representatives refused to consider a new draft of the Farm Bill – set to expire at the end of 2012 – passed by the Senate last June, legislators extended the current bill to September 2013 as a temporary compromise (thereby avoiding the so-called “dairy cliff”).
Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow has said she is committed to passing a new long-term Farm Bill this year, noting that agriculture supports nearly one in four Michigan jobs and contributes $91 billion to the economy annually. Fierce debates over the possible elimination of direct-payment subsidies to farmers means the bill faces an uphill political battle, but its importance to Michigan's 55,000 farms – especially on issues like disaster relief – has committed Stabenow to the fight, according to press secretary Matt Williams.
“The Senator isn't going to wait on this,” says Williams. “Something has to get done. She's committed to moving (the bill) forward however possible on behalf of Michigan farmers.”