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Freezing Weather on Its Way Tonight, Wednesday Morning

Lakeland Ledger – January 5, 2010

Despite official temperatures as low as 29 degrees Monday morning at the Winter Haven Airport, the freezing weather during the past two days still looks like a sparring match before the main event.

Temperatures in Polk County could fall to the mid- to upper 20s as the worst of the current cold front passes through Florida tonight and Wednesday morning, said Logan Johnson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin.

The Weather Service forecast calls for a brief warm-up to the upper 50s or lower 60s on Thursday and Friday until another Arctic Express arrives in the state Friday night.

Just how cold it will get this weekend depends on whether the cold front comes with cloud cover, which would hold in warm air, or clear skies, said Mike Clay, a meteorologist with Bay News 9.

“If it clears out, we could easily be in the 20s,” he said.

Weather.com even raised the possibility of snow Friday in central Polk, a prediction that was debunked by both the National Weather Service and Bay News 9.

Citrus growers in Polk and other counties in northern Central Florida fear a citrus freeze could come tonight, said Andrew Meadows, a spokesman for Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual, the state’s largest growers’ organization.

Temperatures must fall to 28 degrees or lower for at least four hours to cause a citrus freeze.

“There’s concern we’ll see a freeze in some patches of the state,” he said.

The prolonged cold spell poses the biggest threat to tropical fish farmers, who need to keep the water in their ponds above 55 degrees, said Ray Quillen of Urban Tropical Inc. in Lakeland.

A single pond holds about 20,000 fish, and Quillen manages 106 of them.

“It’s going to hurt all of us. Whether it’s bad or disastrous is going to depend on the amount of sun and the amount of wind,” said David Boozer, executive director of the Florida Tropical Fish Farm Association Inc. in Winter Haven.

Tropical fish farmers can maintain a pond’s temperature by covering it with a plastic sheet. But they also need the daytime sun, which creates a greenhouse effect under the covering.

“We’re certainly thankful for a full day of sunshine today,” Boozer said Monday.

Quillen reported the sunshine raised the water temperature over his covered ponds to 68 degrees by the afternoon.

Because the plastic sheets are not airtight, however, strong winds can blow cold air inside or even blow the covers away, Boozer said.

The wind has been mild so far, but that may not be the case later this week, when the Weather Service forecast calls for showers for Thursday and Friday.

“The best we can do is prepare for a hard week,” he said.

Growers of citrus, strawberries, tropical fish and ornamental plants Monday reported minimal or no damage from two nights of temperatures at or below freezing.

“It’s not been cold enough to do any harm other than annoyance and causing growers to lose a lot of sleep,” said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association in Dover.

Strawberry growers run their irrigations systems when the temperatures approach freezing because formation of ice releases heat, which protects the fruit.

They also must constantly monitor the system in the event of line breaks or malfunctioning sprayer heads.

Despite minimal damage so far, Campbell and Carl Grooms, a Plant City strawberry grower, worried that running water for five or more days in a row will cause water damage to the berries.

The cold weather also means it will take longer for strawberry blooms on the plant now to ripen into berries during the normal 30-day cycle, Grooms said.

That could mean a production shortage in February.

Winter Haven recorded the lowest temperature Monday morning among the four local National Weather Service stations.

The station at Lakeland Linder Airport only fell to 34 degrees while the Bartow Municipal and Plant City airport stations dipped to 32.

The Florida Automated Weather Network stations in Lake Alfred and Frostproof showed the low temperatures at 31 degrees and 32 degrees, respectively, before dawn. They are run by the University of Florida.

The most ominous forecast came on the Weather Channel’s Web site, weather.com, which predicted snow mixed with rain Friday night in the Auburndale-Lake Alfred areas.

But meteorologists Johnson of the Weather Service and Clay of Bay News 9 blew warm air on that forecast.

Both predicted rain showers will end by the time the weekend cold front rolls in, so don’t plan a snowball fight yet.

The last measurable snowfall in Polk and Florida occurred on Jan. 17, 1977, said Josh Linker, a Bay News 9 meteorologist.

Polk and other Central Florida counties last saw snow mixed with rain on Jan. 8, 1996, but it did not accumulate.

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