El Nino likely to bring big snow State risk doubled that winter will see 9-inch accumulation

November 15, 1997|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Thanks to the influence of El Nino, Marylanders will face a doubled risk of at least one snowstorm this winter with an accumulation of 9 inches or more and Ocean City is at greater risk from damaging nor'easters, National Weather Service officials said yesterday.

Such snowstorms have struck the Baltimore area in four of the eight most recent El Nino winters, they said. Those years include 1983, when a 22.8-inch storm paralyzed the city, and 1987, when three storms each dropped 9 to 12 inches of snow.

"When there is a doubling of the risk of a big snowstorm, if you are an individual or a business concerned about that, it would be prudent to prepare," said Robert Livezey, senior research meteorologist at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction in Camp Springs.

In his first El Nino forecast tailored for Maryland, Livezey also said the winter will bring an increased risk -- though no guarantee -- of ice storms, heavy rains and minor flooding in inland portions of the state.

Ocean City, meanwhile, faces heightened chances for high winds, coastal flooding and beach erosion from the powerful coastal storms known as nor'easters because of their typically strong northeast winds.

Maryland's Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) has begun to incorporate the El Nino forecasts into its planning for the coming winter.

The governor's El Nino Monitoring and Coordination Group has met, said MEMA director David McMillion. State agencies have been briefed on the forecast, and local governments are being encouraged to review their winter road-clearing plans.

Broadcast public service announcements will urge Marylanders to prepare, and a toll-free number (800-422-8799) has been established to help the public get information. MEMA's computer Web site (www.mema.state.md.us) has also been updated to offer links to information related to El Nino.

McMillion said MEMA will ask the General Assembly in January to replenish the state's $3 million Catastrophic Event Fund, which has fallen to $30,000.

"We have to prepare for the worst case," he said. "It doesn't make any difference whether it's an El Nino event or not."

The El Nino phenomenon is a periodic warming of sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific. With improved monitoring equipment and computer modeling over the past 10 years, climatologists have begun to find strong links between the Pacific warming and extreme weather events around the world.

The latest El Nino phenomenon began early this year and has been called the most powerful since the 1982-83 El Nino -- the strongest on record. Its effects have brought drought, crop failures and forest fires to Indonesia and Papua, New Guinea, and to parts of Central and South America, including the Amazon basin.

Other parts of the Americas have seen heavy rains, flooding and intensified storms, including a series of deadly tropical storms and hurricanes in Mexico.

Strong El Nino events are associated with a decreased risk of hurricanes and tropical storms in the Atlantic Ocean, which means a lowered risk of such storms striking the mid-Atlantic coast, and Maryland.

El Nino years have also historically meant drier-than-normal weather for Maryland in the late summer and early autumn, with fewer severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.

Both forecasts have proved accurate this year, Livezey said. Hurricanes vanished from the Atlantic after July, and "our dry spell here in the mid-Atlantic region was related to El Nino," he added.

November and December during an El Nino event are typically warmer than normal in Maryland, he said, "but those conditions do not persist." In the end, El Nino winters in Maryland average out with no clear trend either to colder- or warmer-than-normal winters.

The same is true of wintertime precipitation. El Nino winters -- taken as a whole -- are not clearly wetter or drier than normal in Maryland, Livezey said, and "there isn't a great deal of evidence that the [total] amount of snow is greater than in other years.

But the data do suggest a stronger likelihood of a few big snowstorms or rainy nor'easters within those trendless winters.

Barbara Watson, warning coordination meteorologist at the weather service's Baltimore-Washington Forecast Office in Sterling, Va., made a study of the impact of El Nino on Baltimore's weather over the past 48 years.

Over that entire period, she said, 12 years produced snowstorms of 9 inches or more -- a 25 percent risk. In the eight El Nino winters, four years had such storms -- a 50 percent risk.

The other four El Nino winters -- the "quiet" ones -- brought snows of 6 and 8 inches to Baltimore, major rains storms to the coast and heavy snow to states to the south.

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