Where are the snows of yesteryear? Weather experts wish they knew

February 08, 1993|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Staff Writer

Is metropolitan Baltimore's winter weather being reduced to two-dog nights? Do almost three years of mild, nearly snowless winters represent a trend? Or are they merely a blip on the radar screen of the ages?

Since the Blizzard of '83 landed its knockout punch 10 years ago this week, Maryland has had some -- but not much -- harsh winter weather to talk about. The 1983 storm was an "anomaly," as climatologists like to say, and not representative of what's going on with the climate.

So what is going on?

One scientist, deep in the study of global warming for the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, put it this way: "Gee, I don't know, but winters aren't like the ones when I was growing up."

Dr. Anthony DelGenio, a physical scientist with the Goddard Institute, added that annual average global temperatures have gone up about 1 degree in 140 years, to about 53 degrees Fahrenheit.

"There's a long-term warming trend, but we don't have a good handle on its effects. There are too many uncertainties," he said. "As for the recent mild weather, it's too small a sample, although there has been a definite warming trend since 1965."

Fred Davis, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, noted that the five warmest years here since the agency began recording occurred in the 1980s.

"The global warming theory has some validity, but it's an unsure science," he said. "We don't know where it's going."

This January's temperatures in Baltimore were 6.1 degrees above normal, Mr. Davis said, "but winter isn't over yet."

Three cold fronts have zipped through just since the beginning of February, but the 30-day forecast issued Jan. 29 predicts temperatures slightly above the normal median of 37.3 degrees.

Baltimore's average annual snowfall is 20.9 inches. That total was surpassed in the winter of 1982-1983 with the help of the famous 22.8-inch blizzard. Three major storms in 1986-1987 boosted that winter's total to 35.2 inches, but snowfall has been well below average since.

Only 9.4 inches of snow fell in 1990-1991, followed by a mere 4.1 inches last year. Even those snowfalls quickly turned to rain. This winter, through this weekend's dusting, a scant 2.9 inches of snow have fallen "officially" on metropolitan Baltimore (as measured at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, anyway), and that also was washed away.

"There's no explaining it," Mr. Davis said. "We're just out of the pattern. But patterns change, and we will still have snowy winters."

He noted that less than an inch of snow fell in Baltimore in 1949-1950 in a cold period in Baltimore weather history, but that didn't mean the end of winter as we know it.

Global warming, frequently mentioned in the warm-winter debate, is blamed mostly on gases -- carbon dioxide in particular -- which are created by the burning of fossil fuels and trapped in Earth's atmosphere.

Says Jim Wagner, senior forecaster of the U.S. Climate Analysis Center in Camp Springs: "The theory of global warming is correct, but there is no agreement on speed and effect."

The British Meteorological Service in 1989 predicted a rapid warming of the Earth, based on a frightening theory that went something like this: As global temperatures rise, more carbon dioxide is released from the oceans, creating even warmer temperatures that release more carbon dioxide. At some point, the process becomes self-sustaining, runs out of control and we all fry.

Two years later, however, the British service revised its prediction downward: We'll still fry but not as quickly.

This is one example of the hurricane-force winds blowing within the community of climatologists over the issue of global warming.

Another example is El Nino, which rose Godzilla-like out of the Pacific Ocean a century ago and has kept more than a few climate scientists off the unemployment lines in recent years.

Actually, El Nino -- "the male child" in Spanish -- was forgotten shortly after its discovery and didn't become a climatic buzzword until a decade ago. The name involves a huge body of water that extends from South America well into the western Pacific Ocean.

Every three to five years since the early 1950s, the temperature of this area of ocean water has risen 3 to 5 degrees above normal. The current El Nino began in the late spring of 1991 and is now in a state of decay, with a temperature about 1.6 degrees above normal, said Chester Ropelewski of the analysis center in Camp Springs.

Mr. Ropelewski attributes the recent wet weather on the West Coast to El Nino and its effect on wind patterns. He also attributes unusual weather fluctuations all over the world to El Nino, including droughts in Australia and Africa and unusually severe storms in Europe over the past two years.

"Having said that," Mr. Ropelewski added, "I don't think El Nino affects the East Coast much."

Rich Tinker of the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., says all of this -- global warming, El Nino, a wet thumb held in the air -- has no measureable significance in the context of 100 years or more of weather history.

"There's a natural variability in the weather," Mr. Tinker said, "and it's a mistake to think the peaks and valleys are all connected."

So will palm trees one day sway in a tropical breeze along Baltimore Street? Will Oriole Park at Camden Yards become a cup of briny water as the ice cap melts and the seas rise?

Will Maryland ever have another Blizzard of '83, or even something approaching it -- at least enough snow for a few days of decent sledding? Only time will tell.

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