Three years ago few had ever heard of a “Polar Vortex” winter weather event until one blasted the country with record low temperatures in 2014. It’s equally likely few had ever heard of a “bomb cyclone” until a few days ago, when meteorologists started ringing the alarm about a weather event likely to put the Eastern seaboard in deep freeze all the way into South Florida.
Temperatures plummeted across the Southeast and into Florida days ahead of the storm, which in the Northeast has brought dangerously cold temperatures, unpredictable blizzards, flooding and potential hurricane force winds as the system’s pressure bottoms out (that’s the ‘cyclone’ part) and persists through the weekend. Thousands are without electricity and travel and transport will likely be near impossible for days.
The National Weather Service says winds could drop temperatures to as low as minus-40 degrees over the weekend and shatter records in two dozen cities.
Remarkably, Southeastern agriculture has apparently escaped significant damage, despite weather anomalies across the region. Rare sights like snow-covered Vidalia onion fields and snowmen in Florida became suddenly common.
Freezing temperatures were reported as far as deep into Florida, but mitigation efforts across the region were successful. There was some remaining concern in Florida about temperatures in the early morning hours of Jan. 5, but as long as projections hold crops will be secure.
Of more concern will be the possibility of shipping into the Northeast — routes and logistics have already been thrown into disarray and that situation will only worsen over the weekend.
Meanwhile, some Southern growers were grateful for the cold. Georgia, for instance, has been dealing with an explosion in white fly populations over the past few growing seasons. A wintry blast like this will decimate that population. Peach growers across the region welcomed the cold — the past two seasons getting enough chill hours to produce a bumper crop has been problematic.
“We have not gotten any reports on crop damage from the cold. There may be a little damage on greens or onions –not much,” said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. “But the good this is doing is chill hours for peaches and blueberries and killing white flies.”
And while the site of Vidalia onion tops peeking through snow is downright bizarre, John Shuman of Shuman Produce Inc. in Reidsville, GA said the weather likely presents no problem for the crop, which was set out in November and December.
“We think we’ll be okay, it is too soon to tell but we are cautiously optimistic,” Shuman said. “The ground never froze, which is good, and the snow can actually provide protection from the wind chill. Typically in this kind of weather, the older onions are affected more than the later planted onions. It’s really too early to tell but we think we’ll be okay.”
In Florida, citrus growers already besieged by greening disease and Hurricane Irma breathed a sigh of relief as temperatures took a nosedive but stopped short of harming the crop. “Close,” said Florida Citrus Mutual Spokesman Andrew Meadows, “but we should be okay.”
Lisa Lochridge of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association said there was little damage reported in other crops around the state.
“I talked to some folks [Thursday] and did not hear of any major issues. The strawberry guys came out fine using irrigation. The folks in South Florida will be keeping watch Thursday night, which is supposed to be colder [but] may not have as much wind.”
Look for continued updates from SPW as the winter weather event unfolds.