Life in the Frost/Sun Belt

January 05, 1994

Yesterday's snow/sleet/rain storm is an excellent illustration why weather forecasting is such a nail-biting profession here. One storm brought a little of all kinds of precipitation to different parts of the state. Vagaries of weather patterns? In a way, yes, but more a matter of geography.

Maryland isn't called "America in Miniature" for nothing. No deserts or rain forests, but pretty much every other kind of terrain. Patterns on the surface have a good deal of influence on climate, in addition to the winds aloft. And the state, meteorologically as well as psychologically, often can't decide whether it's northern or southern. The result? Weather that is often hard to predict.

Storms typically reach Maryland from the west or south. Traveling across the flat Midwest, their impact is fairly predictable. Once they hit the Western Maryland mountains, however, they can become flighty. Temperature variations, wind patterns and amount of moisture left in the clouds can fool the National Weather Service computers, not to mention the humans who operate them.

Similarly, storms moving up the coast can be nudged out to sea or farther inland by all sorts of factors, including temperature variations between land and ocean. A slight deviation can turn a promised deluge into a dusty breeze. It can dump its heaviest load of snow on the lower Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland, as a storm did last week, or on Garrett County, as it did yesterday.

Because Maryland is the middlest of the Middle Atlantic states, winter temperatures here often hover around the freezing mark, as they did yesterday. Window-gazers in downtown Baltimore could watch the precipitation change from snow to rain and back again twice in less than an hour. Does the Mason-Dixon Line or the Potomac River mark the boundary between North and South? Count Jack Frost among those who aren't sure.

For all the electronic help the Weather Service has these days, it still depends heavily on information from the ground. A lot comes from human observers, especially well inland. On and off the coast, data is harder to come by. Even on Chesapeake Bay, information about actual conditions can be misleading, which is why sailors are often frustrated by wind forecasts that are plainly wrong. One answer is more instruments, on the surface as well as in space. And public awareness that weather forecasting is still an art as well as a science.

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