The warm autumn of '94 will leave glowing memory

November 23, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writers Patrick Gilbert and Anne Haddad contributed to this article.

When Marylanders list their blessings at the dinner table tomorrow, they may include a word of thanks for one of the most delightful autumns in recent memory.

A cool and dry September, with dry, sunny weekends, was followed by more dry and pleasant weather in October. And when November arrived, it brought not cold winds and early snows, but more dry, sunny days and warm temperatures.

"Maybe we're just getting a little payback now for some of the weather last winter," said meteorologist Russell Martin of the National Weather Service's Climate Analysis Center in Camp Springs.

Last winter is remembered for a series of 17 icy storms that began after Christmas and barely let up before March. Arctic air produced the third-coldest January and February since 1895, and littered the region with lost school and work days, dented fenders, painful falls, power outages, broken pipes, high heating bills and damaged trees.

If this autumn has been a payback, Dennis Henderson has made the most of it. He has kept his 32-foot sailboat Osprey in the water three weeks longer than usual at the Trade Winds Marina on Armstrong Creek in Middle River.

"We had the boat out [sailing] last Saturday and the Sunday before that, and it was just beautiful," said Mr. Henderson, an attorney with the state Public Defenders Office. "It was T-shirt and shorts weather in the middle of November. What more could you ask for?"

Earlier this month, window-box flowers were still in bloom and state parks remained busy. Campgrounds at Cunningham Falls State Park have been full for the past two weekends, said Barbara MacLeod at the Department of Natural Resources.

Although freezing temperatures were expected last night, that did not signal a tumble into an early winter, forecasters say. The six- to 10-day outlook for Maryland calls for near-normal temperatures through Dec. 1. "Normal" means highs in the low 50s, and lows near freezing.

Our mild November weather has been the happy product of a strong and persistent high pressure system that has lingered over the Southeast since late in October, meteorologists say.

"That has been delivering warm air mass after warm air mass from the Gulf of Mexico to the Ohio Valley and the northeastern United States," said Pennsylvania State University meteorologist Fred Gadomski.

Further "upstream" in the river of air that blows across the continent, storms and cold air off the Gulf of Alaska have buried Valdez, Alaska in nearly 100 inches of snow already this season. Those storms have been spilling into the northwestern United States, pumping snow and cold into the Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin.

The Western cold and snow and the Eastern warmth have been separated by a northeasterly flow of high-altitude "jet stream" winds. They have steered storms to our north, and kept the cold fronts whipping out of the West from penetrating into the Eastern states.

Some upper Midwest states reported their latest first-freezes on record this fall, said Mr. Martin, at the National Weather Service. Baltimore had its first freeze two weeks ago. The average date is Oct. 26.

Sault Ste. Marie, in northern Michigan, got its first snowfall yesterday morning, the latest ever for that city. Rochester and Buffalo, N.Y., were both waiting yesterday for their first "lake-effect" snows, a record delay for both cities.

Lake-effect snows occur when cold air out of Canada sweeps south across Lake Erie and Lake Ontario and kicks up snow to their south and east. The lack of such snow so far this fall is "extraordinarily unusual," Mr. Gadomski said.

Pessimists might argue that we'll pay for the nice fall weather with ice, snow and bitter cold this winter. But forecasters say there's no scientific reason to think so.

Mr. Gadomski said one season's weather has almost nothing to do with how the next season turns out. "There is no relationship worth talking about," he said.

One forecasting technique meteorologists use, however, is to search the record books for similar weather patterns in the past.

For example, in the last 100 years, there have been only 10 in which the Northeast experienced the same pattern of cool Septembers and Octobers, followed by warm Novembers, Mr. Gadomski said. "Only once was such a pattern followed by an extremely cold December," he said. "What tends to happen is a near- to slightly above-normal temperature pattern in December."

A bitter cold snap in December could hurt Maryland's peach growers, whose trees are still laden with sap due to November's warmth.

"It has a potential for being disastrous. If it gets cold quick, really quick, it can wipe the damn things out again," said Ed Armacost of Armacost Farms Orchard in Upperco.

This fall's Maryland peach crop was destroyed by last winter's deep freeze.

Even beyond December, Mr. Gadomski's survey does not suggest a harsh winter. In other years with autumns like this one, the chances of an extremely cold winter are reduced in the Northeast, he said.

Lest anyone get too confident, Mr. Gadomski pointed out that one year that fits this fall's pattern was 1978. That autumn was followed by a 24-inch snowfall on Feb. 18-19, 1979, that paralyzed the region. The forecast had called for just 8 inches.

Lesson: "One should not draw too many analogies," Mr. Gadomski said.

The weather service's official three-month forecast for this winter is due out Tuesday. The last three-month forecast, issued late in October, predicted a return to near-normal temperatures and precipitation in December and January.

While November pleased because it was mild, September and October got points for being cool and dry.

"These months averaged 2 to 4 degrees below normal in the interior Northeast," Mr. Gadomski said. "But they were notable for their dryness, especially east of the Appalachians. And that is as pleasant as it can be in September and October."

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