One way or another, winter's over Astronomers say it ended today, while climatologists say it was over Feb. 29.

March 20, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

If you trust astronomical tradition, winter ended at 3:48 a.m. today -- the vernal equinox.

If you believe the venerable National Weather Service, winter closed Feb. 29 -- the end of the three-month period that meteorologists say is the coldest time of the year in this country and should therefore be considered winter.

But if you rely on your porch thermometer, you may have barely noticed winter's arrival in the first place, much less miss it when it's gone.

That's because it was mild -- the mildest December to February ever recorded in the United States. It wasn't quite so mild in Maryland, but the state still had higher temperatures, less rain and much less snow than usual.

At the Customs House in the city, the winter was the third warmest on record with temperatures averaging 42.8 degrees, 5.5 degrees above normal, said Amet Figueroa, forecaster for the National Weather Service at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The second warmest was the winter of 1889-90, with an average temperature of 43.9 degrees. The balmiest winter ever in the city came in those Depression days of 1931-32, when the temperature averaged 45.3 degrees.

At BWI, the average temperature from December through February was 36.8 degrees, 2.2 degrees higher than a typical year -- but well short of a record, said Mr. Figueroa.

Overall, conditions were tepid. "We never had any prolonged cold spell," Mr. Figueroa said. But neither were any daily records set for warmth.

Here are the month-by-month numbers for BWI: in December, the average temperature was 38.7 degrees, 2.2 above normal; in January, it was 34.6, 1.9 above normal; and in February it was 37.1, 2.4 above normal.

The state, which is in the throes of a prolonged dry spell, received 7.84 inches of rain from December through February -- 1.44 inches less than normal.

March skies usually produce 3.72 inches of rain. But even with the storm of the past few days, only 2.19 inches had fallen as of 3 p.m. yesterday.

Snow has made only a few guest appearances this season. A total of 4.1 inches had fallen on BWI as of yesterday afternoon, less than one-fifth of the normal 21.3 inches.

The biggest storm of the season was a miniature 2-incher that yapped and nipped at the region Jan. 25. Most of the rest has fallen in dribs, drabs and dustings of mere fractions of an inch.

Mr. Figueroa is a forecaster, not a mystic. But he took some delight in noting a curious, though scientifically meaningless, coincidence in the historical records.

Sunday, March 29, is the 50th anniversary of the Palm Sunday snowstorm of 1942, when 22 inches buried wartime Baltimore -- the heaviest March snowfall on record here.

The heaviest snowstorm was Jan. 28, 1922, when 24 1/2 inches fell.

One hundred years ago this month, he added, was the snowiest March on record -- 25.6 inches of snow fell.

"There's a double-whammy. Look out!" he laughed.

Practically speaking, Mr. Figueroa said, those records are a reminder that no matter what the National Weather Service and astronomers and even your thermometer says, winter comes and goes as it pleases.

Dr. Alan Robock, an associate professor of meteorology at the University of Maryland and the state climatologist, chided a reporter for calling to ask about the end of winter.

As far as he was concerned, that occurred Feb. 29.

"Climatologists have looked at the data and determined that if you want the winter season to be the coldest quarter of the year, the summer the warmest and spring and fall in between" he said, winter should begin Dec. 1 and end the last day of February.

By tradition, of course, winter begins on the winter solstice, which occurs Dec. 22 or 23, when the days stop getting shorter.

It ends on the vernal equinox, when the sun reaches a point directly overhead at the equator. It's one of two days a year when the sun shines equally on both the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

Both the equinoxes and solstices have been measured for thousands of years by astronomers.

Dr. Robock, tongue in cheek, says he wants this meteorological tyranny to end.

"I think people should let climatologists determine seasons, not astronomers," he said.

Dr. Eric Chaisson, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, was willing to concede the point.

"Astronomically, [today] we reach halfway between the shortest day and the longest day of the year," he said. "But I do agree with him in terms of the coldest months in the Northern Hemisphere -- December, January and February -- because that's when I rev up my wood stove."

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