Highs in 70s in March? Warm spell expected to last

Posted March 14, 2012, at 12:53 a.m.

CHICAGO — Break out the beach towels, flip-flops and baseball bats: Warm weather is arriving early across much of the U.S., even in northern states where perplexed residents are swapping their snow shovels for golf clubs.

The unseasonably warm weather was pushing throngs of people outside to play Tuesday from the Plains to New England, where March is feeling like May with temperatures ranging from the high 60s to low 80s — smashing dozens of record highs.

Boaters were cruising along the river in downtown Chicago amid one of Illinois’ warming winters on record. Golfers were smacking balls at a central Minnesota course that opened weeks earlier than last year.

And an ice-breaking mission on Maine’s Kennebec River was the shortest in recent memory — because the Coast Guard found no ice.

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“It’s almost like we skipped winter and now we’re going to skip spring, too,” said Gino Izzi, a senior meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Chicago office.

Forecasters said spring is early and predicted the temperatures could remain unusually high through the end of March.

Izzi said the weather pattern is a random but normal fluctuation. A jet stream moving north to south on the West Coast is pushing an opposite, seesaw effect in the rest of the nation.

The warm weather was raising some concerns, however, including upping the risk of wildfires in North Dakota and South Dakota. The usually warm, dry and windy conditions on Tuesday prompted six North Dakota counties to declare fire emergencies and institute burn bans.

But in neighboring Minnesota, golfers were enthusiastically greeting the sunshine at the Eagle Valley Golf Course in suburban St. Paul. The course had sent an email to its 10,000-person subscriber list about the course opening weeks earlier than last year’s chilly, soggy spring start.

Within an hour of its post-lunch opening Tuesday, dozens of players were out on the course, head golf pro Dan Moris said.

“We’re hoping this is a sign of good things to come,” Moris said.

The ice rink was empty at Chicago’s iconic Millennium Park, where crowds were instead strolling and admiring the reflection of the skyline in a large, mirror-surfaced sculpture known as the Bean. Nearby, new city residents Katie and Chris Anderson left work early to enjoy the afternoon and spend their second wedding anniversary on a tennis court.

The couple said they were surprised by the wonderful weather because they were expecting Chicago’s legendary cold winter.

“I was really nervous about moving here,” Katie Anderson said, then her husband chimed in: “We expected the worst.”

In Boston, pedestrians traded puffy jackets and knit hats for short sleeves as the temperature climbed Tuesday. At a tanning salon in Boston’s Seaport District, a pair of flip-flops sat in front of one tanning booth, and a pair of sneakers rested by another Tuesday afternoon.

Employee B-Jay Angiulo said it’s a sign business is good when two of their six tanning booths are full before 5 p.m., when customers usually get out of work.

“Everyone definitely has spring fever,” she said. “I think the sun’s out so people want to get a little spring color going on.”

Farther south in Tennessee, temperatures since December have been 4 degrees above normal. The warmer readings should help the state’s important tourism business, which includes the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in east Tennessee, country music attractions in Nashville and Elvis Presley’s Graceland home in Memphis.

“People get out when the weather is nice,” said Susan Whitaker, the state’s tourism commissioner.

In downtown Washington, most of the benches at a local park filled up with people enjoying the weather. Taylor Jantz-Sell, a government employee, had brought some reading she needed to do to the park.

“This is my favorite time of year, watching the blossoms come out,” she said, adding that she’d seen daffodils and crocuses, and also gone on a morning run to work because of the good weather.

“It’s a sign of good things to come,” she said.

Associated Press writers Jessica Gresko in Washington; Bridget Murphy in Boston; Joe Edwards in Nashville; Jason Keyser in Chicago; Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn.; and Kristi Eaton in Sioux Falls, S.D., contributed to this report.

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