TRAVERSE CITY — The word “normal” bothers Keith Berger.
The veteran meteorologist with 30 years of experience for the National Weather Service in Gaylord said he’d banish that word if he could, calling it a misnomer in his business.
“There is no such thing as ‘normal,” Berger said. “’Normal’ is just the average of the extremes we experience.”
Northern Michigan experienced one of those extremes Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning with temperatures dipping below freezing and bringing along snow to some areas. Berger said the lowest temp in Traverse City on Wednesday was 29 degrees at 8 a.m.
Record lows for this time of the year are 16 degrees on both April 20, 1983, and April 21, 1981. April 22 saw a record low of 19 degrees in 1905, and April 23 was 21 degrees in 1986.
Average highs for mid-April hover around the mid-50s, Berger said. Average lows are just above freezing, about 34 degrees.
“If the average lows for this time of year are just getting above freezing, then common sense will tell you that about half the time temperatures are below freezing,” Berger said. “Freezes like we’re seeing aren’t terribly uncommon.”
The cause for the low temps simply is the weather pattern in northern Michigan. Berger said spring and fall are “transitional seasons.” During the spring, the polar jet stream — which keeps the cold air here when it’s south of us — is right over our heads.”
Berger said the jet stream sometimes doesn’t move back north until June.
Tuesday night’s cold spell also rolled through Northport.
“We were shooting about 26-27 degrees Fahrenheit last night,” Phil Hallstedt said Wednesday.
He and his wife, Sarah, own and operate Hallstedt Homestead Cherries, a farm where they grow eight varieties of sweet cherries in 20 acres of orchard.
The cold definitely caused the loss of some of their crop, but it’s too early to tell how much.
“We could have lost 90 percent, or we could have lost 20 percent. We know we’ve lost a lot,” said Hallstedt.
The Hallstedts live on their farm and usually enjoy the view out over their orchard. But the forecast for Tuesday night’s freeze made them worry.
“Last night was not so fun,” Sarah Hallstedt.
Damage from freezes depends on the development stage of the fruit crop, according to agricultural and fruit experts at Michigan State University.
Trees and small fruits shed their winter protection and hardiness in the early part of Michigan spring, but withstanding cold temperatures changes with the growth stage. Early buds often can survive temperatures in the teens without damage. As buds open, however, temperatures in the low 20s likely will cause harm to fruit development. Critical freezing temperatures — or the “killing temperature” — can cause between a 10- to 90-percent injury to the flower buds.
Orchards near the water are in a better position to weather the weather, Berger said. With water temperatures warmer than the air, that should warm the air by a couple of degrees. But if temps get into the teens, Berger said there isn’t anything anyone can do to prevent damage to their crops.
“That’s why Old Mission (Peninsula) is one of the greatest orchard places there is,” he said. “The water is what allows there to be any orchards and fruits up there. If that water wasn’t around, you’d be much colder. You wouldn’t be able to grow nothing.”
The general public, those outside of farming and agriculture, find the warm weather in the spring the “greatest thing since sliced bread,” Berger said. Farmers only see it as dollars starting to slip away.
“Everyone is like, ‘Oh, yay. This is great. Thank god. I’m wearing shorts and flip flops.’ The poor farmers are going, ‘Oh no,’” Berger said. “If those trees start blossoming, we’re going to freeze again. It’s going to happen.”
Spring freezes are almost a certainty in any given year, Berger said. Fruit growers need to constantly assess the stage of development of their crops and the susceptibility to freeze injury.
For small fruits — such as cherries — many are needed for good yields and a full crop. Crop losses due to freezing temperatures are almost always the most significant in cherries.
The National Weather Service forecast Wednesday called for another cold night that could kill or damage “tender vegetation.” Temperatures will stay below freezing from at least 9 p.m. Wednesday until 10 a.m. Thursday.
“It isn’t much better,” Sarah said. “But it’s a couple of degrees — and that makes a difference for us. That difference between 27 degrees and 31 ...”
“It would make a huge difference,” Phil said.
“Especially where we are right now,” said Sarah. “I’ll sleep better tonight.”