By Bill O'Brien
TRAVERSE CITY —
Summer officially arrives shortly after 7 p.m. today, but in northern Michigan it's already felt like the middle of the heat season for quite some time.
Summer-like downpours, strong southerly winds and rising dew points ushered out the area's spring season this week, and temperatures are expected to peak in the mid-90s today. That makes it tough on outdoor workers like Jim Thiel, who toiled Tuesday afternoon in downtown Traverse City to restore part of the 1890 Masonic Hall building's foundation.
"The sun's out now; there's no place to hide," said Thiel, who works for Standfest Masonry in Williamsburg.
He gulps Gatorade to stay hydrated during the work day, and planned to make a beeline for the beach after he clocked out for the day.
"Thank goodness for the bay," he said.
The latest heat wave wasn't expected to linger. A revolving weather pattern that since late winter created a cornucopia of challenges for northern Michigan farmers and growers will continue over the next week, at least. After the heat index pushes near 100 degrees today, a strong cool front will move through and turn the weather upside down.
"We're looking at another change in the weather pattern," said Jeff Halblaub, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Gaylord. Normal high temperatures are in the upper 70s in late June, he said, but the region can expect below-normal temperatures over the next 10 days.
Flip-flopping weather trends have made for a tough spring growing season for some northern Michigan fruit farmers. An early spring warm-up followed by several hard frosts in April and May decimated the area's cherry and apple crops, and farmers face their worst growing season since 2002.
The region's field crops have fared better. Rains that began the last weekend in May drenched corn, wheat and rye fields that were desperate for moisture. More soaking rains followed over the first weekend in June.
"It's a good thing we got the rain we got when we did," said Keith Parker, a Leelanau County farmer who raises nearly 600 acres of corn, as well as wheat, rye and hay. "We've had plenty of water for corn ... the wheat and the rye look pretty good."
Yearly precipitation in the Traverse City was just under 20 inches by Tuesday, Halblaub said. That's about six inches above long-term average.
"We've got enough water right now to get into July," Parker said.
Area grape growers are cautiously optimistic about the growing season. Juice grapes sustained extensive spring weather damage in southwest Michigan, but fickle weather spared northern Michigan's wine grape crop.
"I think it's going to be a bumper crop this year," said Mark Johnson, the winemaker at Chateau Chantal on the Old Mission Peninsula. "We're excited."
Johnson said the warm, damp spring has grape development about three weeks ahead of schedule. That gives vintners a buffer if confronted by a summer cold snap, and allows more flexibility in timing the grape harvest.
"We're hoping we won't have to be standing in the snow when we're harvesting," he said.
The National Weather Services' Climate Prediction Center projects a moderate summer weather pattern over the next 30 to 90 days. The 30-day forecast calls for temperatures slightly above normal with precipitation near seasonal averages, while the 90-day forecast projects temperature and precipitation levels near normal.
But grape and field crop growers aren't out of the woods yet. Parker and Johnson fret about summer hail storms that could wipe out a field crop or vineyard in a matter of minutes.
"That's always a bad deal," Parker said.