SEBRING - As bitterly cold temperatures and low wind chills continue to move south and east, Highlands County and the rest of Florida are experiencing the first major touch of winter 2014.
After a relatively warm winter, cold temperatures and gusty winds associated with an arctic air mass are carrying cold wind chills as far south as Brownsville, Texas and central Florida.
In Highlands County, citrus growers, plant nurseries and homeowners were preparing Monday for what could be one of the coldest periods of winter this year.
The National Weather Service reported the arctic air mass that hit two-thirds of the East Monday would keep the cold temperatures in place through mid-week before a warming trend begins Wednesday.
As of Monday afternoon, the weather service called for freeze and hard freeze warnings from 1 to 9 a.m. Tuesday and a freeze watch through late Tuesday night through Wednesday morning.
The National Weather Service in Ruskin reported Monday that Tuesday and Wednesday would have record-cold high temperatures, topping out at 53 degrees Tuesday in Avon Park.
The record cold for Highlands County for Jan. 7 was 18 degrees, recorded in Lake Placid in 2010.
Those forecasts and temperatures will have citrus growers scrambling to make sure everything is in place to protect their crops.
In Florida, there is a $103 billion stake in agriculture, second only to tourism, and during growing season, there are $300 million worth of crops in the ground, on trees or in ponds. Highlands County has about 8.5 million citrus trees covering 64,000 acres, the third-largest in the state.
Ray Royce, executive director of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association in Sebring, said Monday morning citrus owners and workers were already in the groves readying for the weather. He said even when weather threatens to get into the upper 30s, preparations are made in case it gets colder than expected.
Generally, citrus is protected by turning on irrigation pumps and the resulting ice and water protect trees from freezing due to the heat released when water changes from liquid to ice, a phenomenon known as "heat of fusion." When water is freezing, its temperature will be near 32 degrees; therefore, the heat liberated as the water freezes maintains the temperature near 32 degrees and keeps fruit from freezing and ruining.
Royce, who a former citrus grower who sold about 400 acres in Lake Placid 12 years ago, said Monday's forecasts called for upper 30s but dropping. He said growers and workers were out making sure thermometers were working and diesel motors were operable to power pumps which pump relatively warm water from the ground. As that water dissipates, it gives off heat warming the climate around trees.
"You just check to make sure personnel is ready to go out. I would hope we will be in good shape going through the evening," he said.
Millions of people across the United States on Monday made last minute preparations for an unusually bitter Arctic blast that could send temperatures plummeting to their coldest in 20 years.
The arctic chill has brought freezing weather to much of United States beginning Monday. The northeast braced for Arctic blasts, record lows and Arctic-like conditions are now chilling the Midwest. The northeastern United States and parts of Canada have endured heavy snow and deadly sub-zero conditions since Jan. 1, but the deep freeze is now moving through the midwestern United States and threatening usually balmy areas further south like Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
Steve Aumonte, co-owner of The Lord's Farm and Nursery in Sebring and Lake Placid, said he and his wife, Ellie, were spending much of Monday securing protective tarpaulins and blankets over cold-vulnerable plants. He said they were also putting plants near trees where heat collects underneath the canopies.
"We're ready. We look at the winter months weeks in advance and we plan everything," he said.
Although the brief visit from Old Man Winter may have native Floridians searching for overcoats and earmuffs, for seasonal residents and those originally from colder climes, the snap is just a blip on the meteorological radar.
"It's been below zero in upstate New York. Here, we just put an extra blanket on the bad and we're fine," said Barbara Barr, who spends the winter months in Sebring from Afton, N.Y., with her husband, Roger. "We're glad to be here now, that's for sure."
Information from Reuters was used in this report.