Frigid January takes its final bow

February 01, 1994|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Sun Staff Writer

Frigid January is gone.

Now you have to deal with February, and it's no cause to break out the bathing suits or expect help from groundhogs.

Three little words in this week's forecast -- dry arctic air -- will mean cold temperatures again for Maryland beginning tonight.

But sunglasses might be useful, at least for this week, with sunshine predicted every day -- enough tomorrow, in fact, to make a shivering groundhog see its shadow and scare it back into the burrow for six more weeks of winter.

Face it, though, winter won't end until the far side of March, and the National Weather Service forecasts for this week suggest conditions more suitable for hibernation than sunbathing.

Today will be the warmest, with a high temperature of 35 predicted. The mercury is expected to dip into the low teens tonight and reach only the 20s during the daytime through Saturday.

Normal February temperatures for the Baltimore area are highs around 43 and lows around 26. The Weather Service's outlook for next week is for temperatures rising slightly -- but still below normal -- with precipitation above average.

Snow? That midrange forecast doesn't categorize the type of precipitation, but with highs expected to range from 35 to 42 and lows from 18 to 25, some of it could well be icy.

The farther into the future the forecasts run, the more inexact they become. But the short-term prognostication makes it appear quite certain that February will stage a cold opening -- not nearly as cold as the frigid depths of January, however.

"You've got another arctic high pressure system dropping in like it did a few weeks ago," said Weather Service forecaster Bob Melrose. "But we're not going down to 5 below. We're going down into the teens. . . . This is a little below normal."

For Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., the forecasts may come as good news after last month's cold spell and temperatures that bottomed out Jan. 19 at 5 below zero. The extreme cold produced record demand for energy -- at one dangerous point, more than utility companies in the Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Maryland grid could produce.

Summing up the month, BG&E noted yesterday that records for daily consumption of electricity and natural gas were broken in January because of the frigid temperatures and blustery winds.

"The 24-hour electric usage record was exceeded on both Jan. 19 and Jan. 20, and the previous peak hourly demand record was surpassed three hours in a row on Jan. 19," the company said. "The statistics marked the first time in BG&E's history that maximum records were set in the winter heating period instead of the summer cooling season.

"The previous peak hourly demand on BG&E's system was 5,910 megawatts, set at 6 p.m. on July 23, 1991. That record was shattered at 7, 8 and 9 a.m. on Jan. 19, when instruments measured 6,014, 6,076 and 6,058 megawatts."

The company said electric usage totaled 131,711 megawatt-hours on Jan. 19, dipping to 117,544 megawatt-hours the next day. "Both readings exceeded the record of 116,657 set the previous Saturday, Jan. 15, and the previous year's record of 114,432, set on July 8, 1993."

A megawatt is a million watts of electricity, or 1,000 kilowatts. The average household is billed for 600 kilowatt-hours of electricity a month, or about 20 kilowatt-hours a day, according to BG&E spokesman Arthur J. Slusark.

BG&E said large industrial users helped it meet record demand for natural gas needed in home heating by switching over to oil at peak periods.

"Despite the switch, the previous gas usage record, set 12 years earlier, tumbled three times," the company said. "Gas send-out on Jan. 15 reached 710,216 dekatherms. On Jan. 18, the figure rose to 721,078, and the next day to 761,902. The previous record of 690,808 dekatherms was set on Jan. 17, 1982."

A typical BG&E customer uses about 150 therms of natural gas in a winter month, or about 5 therms a day. A dekatherm is 10 therms.

"With the temperatures that they're forecasting [for February], you don't face a problem," Mr. Slusark said of the anticipated energy demands facing BG&E. "It's a little colder than normal for this area, but not atypical. Temperatures in the single digits -- when you have highs for the day in single digits and lows in the minus single digits, that's very abnormal."

Although the temperatures on a few days in January might well be called "abnormal," overall the month was not the coldest on record -- although it was well below average.

An analysis of temperatures recorded at Baltimore-Washington International Airport showed an average daily temperature of 27.1 for January.

The normal average daily temperature for January is 34.9. The coldest January on record at BWI was in 1977, with an average daily temperature of 22.9 degrees.

Statistics for the city for last month had not been compiled, but the coldest January on record was in 1918 with an average daily temperature of 24.2 degrees.

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