GAINESVILLE - The winter of 2011-2012 is one that will likely be long-remembered by many people - not for its harshness, with which we usually associate winters, but for its mildness.
Just how mild was it?
Consider that between the first and last days of winter, Gainesville recorded just twelve days when the low temperature fell to freezing or below. Compare that with last year, when there were 18 days in January alone when lows reached freezing or below.
In addition, the winter of 2011-2012, which ended this past Tuesday, brought with it no significant, accumulating snow or ice. The year before, however, Gainesville recorded several such winter weather events, including the first White Christmas in recent memory and a monster snow/ice storm in January that paralyzed parts of north Georgia for about a week.
March brought with it a quick and significant warm-up across state after state, with more than 2,000 record highs recorded from the plains to New England to the Deep South. Gainesville recorded a new record high for March 15 with a reading of 82.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"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 are predicting temperatures will likely remain unusually high through the remainder 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. Atmospheric patterns, including the Pacific phenomenon known as La Nina, have kept cold air bottled up over Canada and contributed to the warmer winter in snow-accustomed parts of the continental U.S.
THE DOWNSIDE, UPSIDE
The warm weather is raising some concerns, including upping the risk of wildfires. The usually warm, dry and windy conditions prompted six North Dakota counties to recently declare fire emergencies and institute burn bans.
Then there's the early pollen season which struck quickly and suddenly, setting record high counts in many places, including Atlanta, where recordings were "off the charts" for several days. There are also predictions of an early insect problem in those areas where mild to warm temperatures prevailed over the winter. Get ready, the experts say, for a bounty of mosquitoes, fleas, termites, etc.
The warm weather has many a green thumb getting itchy but agricultural experts say not to jump the gun, lest you wind up with tender vegetation that gets killed by a late cold snap and/or frost.
On the other side of the coin, however, the weather appears to have had a positive impact on the economy, at least some segments of it. New housing starts are up, homes sales are up, and work is underway on road construction projects that would not have gotten off the ground in many places until April or May.
Sales of previously occupied home dipped last month but the sales pace for the winter was the best in five years.
The National Association of Realtors said Wednesday that home sales fell 0.9 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.59 million. That's down from a revised 4.63 million sold in January, the highest level since May 2010. The last three months have been the best for winter sales in five years. A mild winter and a stronger job market have helped boost sales ahead of the all-important spring buying season.
Rising along with temperatures: Americans' belief in global warming.
According to a December poll, 62 percent of people believed the Earth was getting warmer, an increase from previous polls. Nearly half of them based that belief on personal weather observations, University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College researchers found.
COMING OUT OF HIBERNATION
The unseasonably warm weather, feeling more like May than March, pushed throngs of people outside.
In Minnesota, golfers were greeting the sunshine at the Eagle Valley Golf Course in suburban St. Paul that opened March 13, weeks earlier than last year.
"We're hoping this is a sign of good things to come," head golf pro Dan Moris said.
The ice rink was empty at Chicago's iconic Millennium Park.
Nearby, new city residents Katie and Chris Anderson said they were surprised by the weather because of Chicago's legendary cold winter.
"I was really nervous about moving here," Katie Anderson said. Her husband added: "We expected the worst."
At a tanning salon in Boston's Seaport District, a pair of flip-flops sat in front of one tanning booth recently, and a pair of sneakers rested by another. "Everyone definitely has spring fever," employee B-Jay Angiulo said.
In Tennessee, where temperatures since December have been 4 degrees above normal, tourism officials said the weather should help their industry, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, country music attractions in Nashville and Elvis Presley's Graceland home in Memphis.
In downtown Washington, most of the benches at a local park have been filled with people enjoying the weather. Taylor Jantz-Sell, a government employee, had brought along some reading.
"This is my favorite time of year, watching the blossoms come out," she said, adding that she'd seen daffodils and crocuses, and ran to work Tuesday morning because of the weather.
"It's a sign of good things to come," she said.
(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)