Scorecard on the winter of '93-'94

March 20, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

In the movie "Groundhog Day," actor Bill Murray wakes up again and again in the same bed, condemned to relive the same slushy, miserable winter day.

The winter of 1993-1994, which the calendar says will end at 3:28 p.m. today, was just that kind of recurring nightmare for millions of people in Maryland and much of the Northeast.

Again and again they awoke to another in a relentless series of at least 17 storms that blew in with record snowfall or record cold, orlaid down a rock-hard plaster of ice, whose stubborn memory lingers in a few shaded remnants and grime-blackened parking lot icebergs.

How bad were the ice storms in Central Maryland?

"People were calling us hoping to get just snow," said Fred Davis, the National Weather Service's chief meteorologist at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. "For people in Baltimore to say they want snow is fairly unprecedented."

The forecast for the first month of spring calls for near-normal temperatures and rainfall in Maryland.

That follows deceptively benign-looking statistics at BWI for December through mid-March: 1.7 degrees colder than average, with about 5 inches more precipitation than normal. Snowfall totaled 17.1 inches by Friday's dusting, 3 1/2 inches less than average.

But those who endured the winter will remember it as one of the costliest and most disruptive in memory, littered with lost school and work days, cabin fever, slippery roads, dented fenders, sore backs, bent shovels, painful falls, power outages, broken pipes, flooded basements, high heating bills, damaged trees and shortages of salt, sand and cat litter.

Meteorologists know how it came about, but not exactly why.

"Simple answers can never be right," said Fred Gadomski, a meteorologist at Pennsylvania State University. Regional climate is influenced by too many complex natural forces.

Our winter of woes resulted not from powerful storms, but from recurring invasions of dense, arctic cold, colliding repeatedly with warm, moist air riding from the Gulf of Mexico. Depending on where you lived along the meteorological battle line, the collision produced snow, sleet, freezing rain, rain -- or all four.

Why the pattern repeated itself so often and persisted so long is beyond meteorologists' current understanding.

This much record-keepers know:

* January and February were the third-coldest pairing of those months in the Northeast since 1895.

* January was Maryland's eighth-coldest January during the past 100 years.

* Snowfall in Maryland varied widely, like the Northeast in miniature. Oakland, in western Garrett County, had counted 146 inches by Friday, 3 inches short of last year's record. On the Eastern Shore, Chestertown had counted 11 inches.

* Local governments in the Baltimore area spent $10.3 million to clear roads, two to four times what they had budgeted. The state spent $23 million -- twice its budget.

* About 223,000 tons of salt and abrasives were applied in the Baltimore area. State highway crews spread 302,000 tons statewide.

* On Jan. 18, power demand across the five-state power grid from New Jersey to the District of Columbia was 8.5 percent higher than during the last winter peak in 1989.

* Nationally, more than 100 deaths have been blamed on the severe weather. Insurers expect insured damage will top $1 billion. Lost time and lost business are expected to rival losses in the recent Los Angeles earthquake.

* Twenty-three Northeastern and Midwestern cities set record lows for January; 11 of those were all-time record lows. Many cities also set snowfall records, including Boston (more than 94 inches).

Curiously, only two storms, on Jan. 4 and March 2-3, qualified as the classic northeasters that typically bring three or four of the region's worst winter storms each year. A northeaster delivered the March 13 "Blizzard of '93."

Instead, most of the misery was caused by a parade of meteorological weaklings -- arctic cold colliding with moist tropical air. Each event was aggravated by what Mr. Gadomski called "exquisite timing."

Because the arctic cold was building at the same time that warmth and moisture were flowing north, "It was like a fortress of cold air that would not be easily moved," he said. That forced the warm, moist air up and over the heavier cold air.

North and west of where these air masses were colliding, the cold layer was deep and the moisture fell as snow. South and east it was rain.

But along a swath from West Virginia, through Maryland, to New York City, rain fell through a more shallow layer of cold air. Sometimes it froze in the air (sleet); other times it froze on the frigid streets and windshields (freezing rain).

Sleet and freezing rain are usually transitional, persisting for a few hours between snow and rain until the cold air "erodes" or moves away.

"This year, because the arctic highs were arriving at the same time, they haven't been easily dislodged," Mr. Gadomski said. "We have no good explanation as to why."

Sleet, rain and ice

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