Spatial extent of winter thaw events in eastern North America: historical weather records in relation to yellow birch decline


Roger M. Cox, tel. +1506 452 3532, fax +1506 452 3525, e-mail:


An algorithm (Weather Reader) was developed and used to analyze daily weather records from all existing Canadian and American weather stations of eastern North America (in excess of 2100 stations), from 1930 through 2000. Specifically, the Weather Reader was used to compile daily minimum, mean, and maximum air temperatures for weather stations with at least 30 years of data, and was used to calculate accumulated degree days for winter thaw–freeze events relevant to yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis Britt.) from beginning to end. A thaw–freeze event relevant to yellow birch was considered to take place when (i) the station daily maximum temperature reached or exceeded +4°C after being below freezing for at least 2 months of the winter, (ii) sufficient growing degree days accumulated (>50 growing degree days) to cause the affected yellow birch trees to prematurely deharden, and (iii) the daily minimum temperature dropped below −4°C causing roots and/or shoots of dehardened trees to experience freeze-induced injury and possibly dieback. The threshold temperature of +4°C represents the daily temperature above which biological activity occurs in yellow birch. The station growing degree day summaries were subsequently spatially interpolated with the Kriging function in GS+ and mapped in ArcView GIS in order to display the geographic extent of the most severe thaw–freeze events. The ArcView maps were then compared with the extent of historically observed yellow birch decline. It was found that the years 1936, 1944, and 1945 were particularly uncharacteristic in terms of region-wide winter thaw–freeze extremes, and also in terms of observed birch decline events during 1930–1960. An overlay of suspected accumulated birch decline based on thaw–freeze mapping and observed decline maps prepared by Braathe (1995), Auclair (1987), and Auclair et al. (1997) for 1930–1960 demonstrated similar geographic patterns. The thaw–freeze projection for 1930–1960 was shown to coincide with 83% of the birch decline map appearing in Braathe (1995) and 55% of the geographic range of yellow birch in eastern North America. Thaw–freeze mapping was also applied to two significant events in 1981. Greatest impact was recorded to occur mostly in southern Quebec and Ontario, and several American Great Lake States, specifically in northern Michigan and New York, where the greatest growing degree day accumulation prior to refreeze in late February (February 28th) was projected to have occurred; and in southern Quebec, most of Atlantic Canada, and Maine, prior to a late spring frost in mid-April (April 17).