Spring is in the air as winter loosens icy grip on Louisiana

After months of what seemed like an endless stretch of one cold and wet day after another, spring dawned Thursday with blue skies promising brighter and warmer days ahead for south Louisiana residents.

But the effects of this winter’s ice storms and frigid temperatures won’t be shaken off so easily. Some crops, such as strawberries, faced damage and delays in harvesting, while other crops, such as crawfish, got pushed back.

“This has been the winter of the polar vortex,” said Barry Keim, state climatologist.

The polar vortex isn’t new. Every winter, polar regions experience perpetual darkness, which allows cold air to accumulate, and when this air mass gets cold enough and dense enough, it flows out of the polar region. This year, it flowed into Canada, the Midwest and eventually down to Louisiana.

“We have these surges every year, but it seemed like this year we’ve gotten more of them,” Keim said.

Starting in January and running into March, four episodes of winter precipitation slicked roads with ice and generally caused problems for Louisiana residents.

“Any single one of these mixed (winter) precipitation events would make an extraordinary winter,” Keim said. “But we had four in a six-week period.”

The ice, freezing rain, sleet and snow events started on Jan. 24 and 25. There was another episode a few days later, on Jan. 28. Then came another blast of harsh winter weather on Feb. 6, followed about a month later with yet more freezing rain for parts of the state on March 4, Mardi Gras.

The freezing rain, snow and sleet shut down major roadways, kept students home from school and shuttered government offices for days at a time.

January was one of the colder Januarys the state has experienced in the last 20 or 30 years, with 16 days in Baton Rouge where the minimum temperatures was 32 degrees or colder.

But what made the winter unusual this year was the amount of wintry precipitation south Louisiana got.

“It is mercifully coming to an end today,” Keim said Thursday, although he cautioned that spring in Louisiana brings its own set of hazards. It’s the season when river flooding and tornadoes are more common.

Meanwhile, winter continues taking its toll on south Louisiana in the form of delayed crops like the crawfish harvest so far this year and a shortage that has driven up prices.

“They’re still small because they need warmer temperatures,” said Mike Strain, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry. However, with warmer temperatures beginning to appear, he said he expects good-sized crawfish will be available by Easter.

Strawberries probably took one of the biggest hits this winter, which made finding local strawberries difficult and will delay major harvesting by two or three weeks.

In January, LSU Agricultural Center officials said the industry could lose between 15 or 20 percent of its yield this year because icy weather killed blooms that would have produced early harvests, which give the growers a price boost.

Other crops face a delay in planting.

As of March 20, only about 1 percent of the state’s corn crop was planted at a time when farmers usually have most of their crop in the ground. Typically, Louisiana corn growers have a slight advantage over farmers in other parts of the country because they can get their planting, and harvest, done earlier.

“If we can get crops in the ground before the other states, we can command a better price,” Strain said.

Planting in Louisiana may be a little late this year, but the rest of the country is continuing through cold and wet conditions, so they could still get out ahead of other states.

LSU Agricultural Center corn specialist Dan Fromme said in a news release that farmers may decide to plant some other type of crop if they can’t get their corn planted next week.

John Westra, associate professor in agricultural economics at LSU, said it’s impossible to predict what prices will be or what the economic impact will be because of the cold weather until the numbers are tallied.

Prices for crawfish are relatively high right now because of low harvests, but as the season extends and the weather warms up, that production will go up and the prices will likely come down some, he said.

“The prices will likely drop, but how much will depend on how much crawfish is harvested in the next few weeks,” Westra said.