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Frigid weather to affect plants, animals

Friday, January 31, 2014
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Matt and Kathy Lindley, of Wilton, help their 8 year old daughter Kate attach her skis before taking to the trails at Saratoga Spa State Park during the Winter Fest Candlelight Ski and Snowshoe on Friday, January 31, 2014.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson
Matt and Kathy Lindley, of Wilton, help their 8 year old daughter Kate attach her skis before taking to the trails at Saratoga Spa State Park during the Winter Fest Candlelight Ski and Snowshoe on Friday, January 31, 2014.

— January’s double whammy of frigid temperatures and minimal snow pack has Central Park Rose Garden operations supervisor Dave Gade concerned about the rose bushes.

“We’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I’ve got a feeling that this is probably the worst [winter] we’ve had in the 15,” said Gade, a master rosarian.

When he and his volunteers first began tending the garden, they mulched each rose bush before winter and then added a layer of straw.

By the numbr-r-r-rs

January temperature data, as recorded at Albany International Airport:

Average temperature, Jan. 1-30, 2014: 19.5 degrees

Days below zero: 6

Average temperature for January 2013: 25.3 degrees

Days below zero: 3

Average temperature for January 2012: 28.4 degrees

Days below zero: None

Typical average temperature for January: 22.4 degrees

Source: National Weather Service

“Once we had the garden pretty healthy, we stopped the straw,” he recalled. “This year, I wish we had it on. That’s the extra protection.”

According to the National Weather Service, the mercury dipped below zero on six different days during January and the average temperature — 19.5 degrees — was nearly three degrees below normal. Snowfall was almost 3 inches below average.

Experts say the brutal midwinter weather combined with a lack of snow pack for much of the month could have a impact on plants, animals and insects.

Perennials, like the roses Gade tends, could be damaged by the weather conditions.

“On a lot of perennials, the least hardy part of the plant is the root system, and so when you do have a good snow cover, that tends to insulate the root system a little bit, and so things will overwinter a little bit better,” said Christopher Logue, director of the Division of Plant Industry at the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. “When you have these kind of cold temperatures and you don’t have snow cover, that can be pretty rough on plant material, whether you’re talking about some of the ornamentals and things like that, as well as some of the perennial crops.”

Gade is banking on the fact that the Schenectady rose garden’s bushes are in good health.

“We do a good job taking care of the roses and rose garden, and healthy roses have got a better chance of surviving the winter,” he said.

But some unpopular invasive plants and insects could be knocked back a bit by the frigid weather, said Scott Kirkton, associate professor of biology at Union College.

“It’s not clear that [the cold temperatures] are going to wipe out the invasive pests, but depending on the group, it’s going to tamp down or reduce the amount that are going to survive the winter,” he said.

The hemlock woolly adelgid, an invasive insect spotted in Schenectady for the first time in the summer of 2012, will have reduced numbers this spring, predicted Jan Nyrop, professor of entomology and senior associate dean of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Science.

“That organism has a really peculiar life cycle in that immatures are actually active and feeding during the winter months, and the kind of temperatures that we have been seeing will definitely cause increased mortality of hemlock woolly adelgid,” he said.

It won’t eradicate the pest but could buy scientists looking for biological controls a little more time, he noted.

The frigid weather could also reduce the tick population and could have an even greater impact on tick carriers like mice, Nyrop said. Survival depends on a variety of factors beyond the winter weather, including genetics and what the weather in other seasons is like, he pointed out.

The cold, combined with the lack of snow, will likely take a toll on small mammals, said ecologist Stacy McNulty of the Adirondack Ecological Center at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

According to McNulty, frost data, recorded at the center’s field station in Newcomb, reveals that the frost line is quite a bit deeper in the ground this winter than it was last year.

“Any species that are down there at the ground surface or in those first many inches of frozen soil will probably be struggling right now to survive,” she said.

Animals that hibernate or go into a torpor — a shorter-term form of hibernation — could sustain losses due to the extreme cold, she said.

“We’re probably going to see a negative impact on the chipmunk population because they just won’t have enough energetic resources to make it through this period where they’re going to have to keep their body temperature at a maintenance level during the winter,” she said.

The lack of snow cover can both help and hinder small animals that are active during winter, noted Patrick Clear, executive director of ECOS: The Environmental Clearinghouse in Niskayuna. The benefit is that food is exposed, but the detriment is there is little snow to provide cover, which makes the animals more vulnerable to predators.

“When we have a winter like this, those animals really need that snow blanket,” McNulty said. “They travel around underneath the snow in tunnels, and so moles and voles and shrews and all of these species that are active in the winter are probably really struggling right now.”

McNulty mentioned that small animal populations naturally cycle up and down and that they can reproduce quickly.

“It will be interesting in the spring, depending on how long the winter persists and how much longer we’re in these really deep, cold temperatures. We’ll see what we get in the springtime when the animals start to emerge again,” she said.

 
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