If you don't like the weather . . .

December 30, 1993

Sometimes it's not as great being "America in Miniature" as Maryland's tourist slogan proclaims. That varied landscape creates weather patterns that complicate forecasting. It's been reflected lately in the sudden icing of the highways Christmas night, this week's on-again-off-again snow and in the gale that swamped a fishing boat in the Chesapeake Bay a few weeks ago.

Neither bit of bad weather was unpredicted, but each had an unanticipated twist. The little dusting of snow expected by Christmas drivers was joined by sheets of ice that sent cars spinning and skidding. Just an hour earlier on those same roads, motorists were zipping along without a care. Contrarily, some of the state got only a light dusting this week while the Eastern Shore saw more than a foot.

An experienced fishing boat captain set out for rockfish south of the Potomac River, skeptical of a small craft advisory broadcast by the National Weather Service. Within hours his boat was swamped in heavy seas and high winds. Testimony at a Coast Guard hearing into the boating mishap sounded a lot like ordinary citizens talking about weather forecasts: You can't believe them.

Weather forecasting has become far more a science than an art with the advent of high-powered computers. But they're no better than the information fed into them. The weather man is still highly dependent on observations, from points near and far. Most laymen know the weather here can be seriously affected by warm currents in the South Pacific. Fewer understand the impact of the land and water immediately around them.

The interaction of wind and temperature between land and water creates highly localized conditions. Brisk winds close to shore can fall flat in mid-bay. Similarly with inland forecasts. Weather systems moving over the flat Midwest aren't much affected by the terrain. Once they reach the mountains of Western Maryland, air currents and temperature variants can modify them. Motorists driving west on I-70 frequently see an abrupt change in the sky between Frederick and Hagerstown.

Storms like this week's usually approach Baltimore from south or west. Either way, we often are on the edge. A slight shift in direction or temperature can turn anticipated snow into rain or vice versa in a particular section. Viewing the state or the bay as a whole, the weather man is right far more often than not. Which is small consolation if you're in the wrong part.

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