By CARLA K. JOHNSON, Associated Press
CHICAGO (AP) -- Boaters cruised along the river in downtown Chicago. Golfers smacked balls in Minnesota.
And an ice-breaking mission on Maine's Kennebec River was the shortest in recent memory because the Coast Guard found no ice.
Warm weather is arriving early across much of the U.S., even in northern states where perplexed residents are swapping their snow shovels for golf clubs.
The unseasonably warm weather was pushing throngs of people outside from the Plains to New England, where March is feeling like May with temperatures ranging from the high 60s to low 80s - smashing dozens of record highs.
"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 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.
Tuesday's warm weather was raising some concerns, including upping the risk of wildfires. The unusually warm, dry and windy conditions prompted six North Dakota counties to declare fire emergencies and institute burn bans.
Rising along with temperatures: Americans' belief in global warming. According to a December poll that found 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.
In Minnesota, golfers greeted the sunshine at the Eagle Valley Golf Course in suburban St. Paul as it opened Tuesday - 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 winters.
"I was really nervous about moving here," Katie Anderson said.
"We expected the worst," her husband added.
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 were filled with people enjoying the weather. Taylor Jantz-Sell, a government employee, planned to do some reading.
"This is my favorite time of year, watching the blossoms come out," she said, adding that she had 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.
Associated Press writers Jessica Gresko in Washington; Joe Edwards in Nashville; Jason Keyser in Chicago; Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn.; David Sharp in Portland, Maine; and Kristi Eaton in Sioux Falls, S.D., contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)