Warm Winter Good For Humans, Bad For Plants

Andrew Sullivan advises, “Don’t Celebrate The Warm Winter.” He points to Matthew Kronsberg‘s essay “Why Farms Want Cold Winters.”

There’s a lot going on, biologically, below the surface, much that can influence what we see on market tables for the rest of the year. And much that can go wrong if the winter is warm, as this one has been in the Northeast.

First, the deep, killing subfreezing cold of winter typically eliminated many damaging insects and pathogens.


Beyond killing the baddies, proper cold serves another important purpose: for perennial crops, shorter days and sustained low temperatures bring a cycle of dormancy, a deep, almost anesthetized sleep, during which growth is temporarily halted. Measured in “chilling hours,” this is the time when plants’ energy is held in reserve, building up for new growth, and farmers can prune and transplant without fear of sprouting. Without sufficient chilling time, a fruit tree will generate fewer, weaker buds, limiting fruit production from day one. Growers monitor chilling hours in a season with a wary eye.


[A] winter that warms up too much for too long, causing plants to “think” it’s spring, could be truly disastrous if temperatures revert and freeze again. In the Wölffer vineyards, Pisacano worries about his vines’ fragility as they come out of dormancy; if a freeze hits then, their trunks could split, causing fatal damage. As Dr. Carroll explains, “A spring freeze event is very bad because plants have begun to grow, or their buds have started to swell and are less cold hardy.” The line between “rough” and “disaster” on those days is razor thin. In apples, the difference between a frost that causes a 10 percent bud loss and one that loses 90 percent can be under 10 degrees’ difference, held for just a half-hour.

While I vaguely knew all of this, it’s not something that I think about very often. Like most people, I expect, I view the weather in terms of how it impacts me and my family–how to dress, what activities to pursue, and so forth–rather than how it impacts the agriculture industry. Obviously, farming effects my life, too, but less directly.

Then again, a much warmer than average winter benefits humans in ways other than the trivialities of dressing in lighter clothing and enjoying more outdoor activities. I don’t have any way to quantify this but I presume that a lot fewer people die from weather-related issues when it’s 55 degrees out than when it’s 35 or 95. Extremes of temperatures kill people without the resources to artificially control the temperature.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Health, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Herb says:

    This actually happens a lot more than we think. Out here on the Front Range, we get these Chinook winds from time to time that make it seem warmer than it is. Funny thing is that some of the native plants have kind of adapted. (Wonder how that happened….)

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    All winter long people have been marveling over the “wonderful weather” we’re having this winter. Then I start grousing about it and they look at me with incredulity until I say one word: “Ticks.” and they all go “Oh yeah… I hadn’t thought about that.”

    As to my garden, it is still too new for me to say how it will be affected (tho I do expect more pests) but I have been unable to prune my fruit trees and wonder how that will affect them long term.

  3. Rob in CT says:

    This has certainly been a wacky winter for us in New England.

    First we had the freak October snowstorm that hit when the leaves were still on the trees. People out of power for a week (me: 24hours, thankfully).

    Then psuedowinter. Temps in the 50s in January and February. Not one warm day – weeks of this stuff. 45-50 degrees has been practically normal. February, in Connecticut? Not normal.

    Some like it. Some, like me, love snow (not in October when the leaves are still on the trees though!). I did vaguely worry about plants. And the maple sugar harvest.

    But I’d forgotten the tick factor. Ugh.

  4. Ben Wolf says:

    The worst aspect or a non-existent winter is that temperatures don’t drop sufficiently to kill off pine weevils. Rising temperatures over the last four decades have already extended their active seasons and range to the point millions of acres of forest in the West are dying out. It’s bound to be much worse in the coming year.