Birds were singing. Insects were buzzing. And a large skunk suddenly appeared in the road in front of meteorologist Paul Pastelok as he drove to work in rural Pennsylvania.
Pastelok missed the skunk, but the close encounter this week was a reminder of how freakishly warm the winter has been from the Plains to the East Coast, and how the higher temperatures have upended everything from wildlife to resorts whose life cycles are dictated by snow.
In New York City, where "unseasonably mild" and "balmy" have been the forecasts of late, temperatures this week have been at least 10 to 20 degrees warmer than the usual average high of 39, a pattern seen across much of the eastern half of the country.
In Wichita, Kan., where the average high temperature last month was 37, about 6 degrees above normal, it hit 62 on Thursday — warmer than Las Vegas. Washington topped out at 56 on Thursday. In Chicago, where the average January day is 29.5 degrees, it was 59 on the last day of the month.
"A measly 19%" of the country was covered in snow, according to Weather.com. New York City, which last year was staggering beneath 36 inches of snow by Feb. 1, has seen just 4 inches fall so far this winter, and the remnants of the last storm melted away long ago.
"Let me put it this way," said one doleful employee of an empty fur-seller in Manhattan, sitting beside doors opened to a sunny, 62-degree day. "Thank God we have a lot of Saudis in town, because to them this is like 30 degrees below zero."
"It's mild," said Pastelok, a meteorologist from AccuWeather, in one of the bigger understatements of the season.
"The departures have been way above normal this season, maybe in a top five or top 10 category," he said when asked to rank how unusual the winter from the Plains eastward had been in terms of temperatures and lack of snow.
The situation has stymied forecasters, who study previous years' patterns to predict the future. This year has been unique because even when there have been cold snaps, they have been extremely brief and followed by long, mild stretches.
Even with February ushering in cooler temperatures — but still above the norm — Pastelok said there were no clear signs of change on the way. "If you don't like cold, it'll be a pattern you like," he said.
Grumpy furriers aside, most New Yorkers have been reveling in the novelty of ice-skating in T-shirts and lunch hours spent basking in the sun or dining at outdoor cafes. But one person's luxury is another's loss, and for businesses that rely upon snow and city officials who plan staffing around the seasons, the weird winter is not welcome and could lead to such changes as higher food prices and more roadkill.
The northern Plains' wheat crops rely on snow cover to protect them from cold air during their dormant winter months, say forecasters, who warn of possible higher prices because of the odd weather. Fruit trees tricked into blossoming early and then hit by a frost could be damaged. Rodents who normally hunker down for the winter are out and about, making for unusual encounters like the one Pastelok had with the skunk outside State College, Pa.
For people who depend upon well water, the lack of snowmelt is a problem. And, Pastelok said, "we could be looking at an abnormally buggy spring" because the icy temperatures that normally drive away insects haven't materialized.
Few have suffered the warmish winter as badly as small ski areas such as Whaleback Mountain in New Hampshire, where Frank Sparrow, one of the owners, made no attempt to conceal his disappointment over the season.
"It's the worst I can remember in 30 years," he said in a telephone interview. "Even if we had snow for the rest of the season, we could never recover."
Sparrow estimated that Whaleback "might have had a foot" of natural snowfall so far this season, and that rain and temperatures in the 40s had affected its ability to top that with quality man-made snow.
In New York, the city canceled its annual Winter Jam festival scheduled for Saturday in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, which gives city dwellers the chance to try cross-country skiing, sledding and snowshoeing. It was the first time in Winter Jam's 10-year history that lack of winter had forced its cancellation.
"It wasn't even a close call," said parks commissioner Adrian Benepe.
From his office adjacent to the Central Park Zoo, buds were sprouting on trees. Crowds lingered around the nearby sea lion pool, whose barking residents lounged in the sun on warm rocks. Daffodils had begun sprouting in some areas.
They were welcome sights for residents who a year ago were in the grip of an icy storm, but the big park crowds have a downside. The city varies park staff according to the seasons, and cleanup crews are at an ebb in the dead of winter.
"So the good news is people are coming out into the parks and playgrounds when they normally would be empty," Benepe said. "The bad news is, we have to clean up after them."