Just like snowflakes no two maple seasons are exactly alike. No question about it, this season fooled me. After about 5 years of early tapping, along comes 2021. During December and January, we experienced above normal temperatures leading to what many believed would be one more in a string of early tapping seasons. Tapping in January has become almost routine across Ohio. However, just like a deck of playing cards, every deck has 2 jokers. This winter season we had two meteorological jokers.
The first was the presence of a strong La Nina with its trademark warmer and wetter weather conditions. Hidden in the background far to the North was the second joker – the always volatile and never popular polar vortex. A polar vortex is always a possibility during the winter months. You never know when the jet streams will line up just right and push Artic air southward into our region. This year we did not experience the full brunt of the vortex like we did in 2014. The coldest air stayed well to the west of Ohio. However, we did experience a cold spell that dominated 20+ days of February.
As result of the persistent polar vortex, the start of the 2021 maple season was pushed back until the last week of February and first couple days of March. Even southern Ohio producers were forced to tap two to three weeks later than normal. The first of March is not historically an abnormally late starting time for maple season in Ohio. The one dominant factor that makes this season different is that our weather is still being somewhat controlled by a strong La Nina weather pattern. The threat of an early warm-up and above normal temperatures are real. And the first indication of that was the stretch of 60-70 degree temperatures experienced during the middle of the second week of March. This was enough to trigger budding in red maples and silver maples of southern Ohio.
At the same time, many sugar camps in northeast Ohio set one day records for syrup production. Sap flows were exceptional after the long cold spell of February. As of March 12th, the same camps are reporting a half crop entering the third week of March. The above normal temperatures experienced at the end of the second week, pushed the season close to the brink. Conditions also caused a dramatic change in syrup grade, and Dark Robust and even Dark Strong profiles have mostly displaced the Golden grade of early season.
The next two weeks will determine the outcome of the maple season in Ohio. OSU Climatologist Aaron Wilson is predicting a mixed bag of weather conditions for the rest of the month. There will be some below freezing temperatures but nothing extreme. For southern Ohio, the trend is for slightly above normal and for northern Ohio – normal temperatures. Again, we may or may not see those colder low temperatures needed to reset the trees and delay budding. What is also troubling is the lack of moisture. 2021’s recent precipitation trend is not typical for a La Nina year, and drier than normal conditions are slowly creeping into Ohio. We need precipitation, snow preferred, to keep the sap flowing, but that key factor is largely missing in the forecast for northern Ohio. At this stage, we need a hybrid of the two jokers to keep this season productive.
I will keep my prediction for the rest of March to myself, goodness knows the first two months of 2021 fooled me. That said, I will be able to confidently predict the outcome the 2021 maple season in Ohio on the 15th of April. What is it they say about hindsight?