Weather experts chilled by forecasts Officials gather to plan for chance of major storm

December 17, 1997|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

Amid springlike December temperatures, a small group of state and private weather officials met in a bunker in Pikesville yesterday and shivered with anxiety.

They were planning what to do if the weather phenomenon known as El Nino turns Maryland into a snowy, icy nightmare this year, as it has in the past when December was unseasonably mild.

"The greatest risk is when December is very warm," said Barbara Watson, a National Weather Service meteorologist who lectured representatives of 32 organizations at Maryland Emergency Management Agency headquarters. "Seven of the last eight El Nino storms have had Decembers that were warmer than usual."

The annual, daylong winter weather seminar was held in "the pit," a room off Sudbrook Lane where nature is monitored and then battled with maps, computers and phones by officials from MEMA, the state police, the Red Cross, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard and even the state Department of Taxation and Assessments.

Giving technical guidance was Watson, nicknamed "El Nino Czar," who is the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service's Baltimore-Washington Forecast Office in Sterling, Va.

El Nino is a periodic rise in surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean from the equator to Oregon. Scientists who monitor the trend say they can't explain why the sea surface temperatures rise, only that the change can cause extreme weather, including heavy rains, flooding, hurricanes and blizzards.

This year's El Nino has been called the most powerful since the 1982-1983 El Nino, which was the strongest on record, Watson said. This month, the first El Nino-powered storm soaked Southern California, flooding mobile home parks and blocking the Pacific Coast Highway. Nine inches of rain fell on Santa Barbara in 24 hours.

Other calculations show a likelihood of spring floods in the Midwest, which could be followed by a crop-threatening drought in the summer of 1998 or 1999.

'One big belt'

Such forecasts gave yesterday's MEMA's Winter Weather Awareness Day seminar a serious tone.

"We usually get one big belt of winter weather every year," said Lisa Albin, MEMA spokeswoman. "El Nino doubles our chances of a coastal storm."

National Weather Service officials say the state is poised for a single snowstorm of at least 9 inches under a weather profile based on El Nino data.

The most extreme situation for Maryland this winter would mirror the 1982-1983 El Nino, which was blamed for the blizzard and northeaster that hit the state in February 1983.

The blizzard, which delivered 22.8 inches of snow, also caused heavy coastal erosion.

David McMillion, MEMA director, said the agency plans to ask the General Assembly to replenish the state's $3 million Catastrophic Event Fund, which stands at $30,000.

Officials also discussed such emergency measures as lining up four-wheel-drive vehicles to transport medical teams; making certain that state correctional facilities have enough food for inmates; and ensuring that hospitals have enough supplies to treat patients during a paralyzing snowstorm.

Watson cautioned that the effects of El Nino can vary widely from year to year.

She has studied the impact of El Nino on Baltimore's weather over the past 48 years and has found that 12 years produced individual snowstorms of 9 inches or more, while other El Nino winters produced storms of 6 to 8 inches.

"There are a lot of questions about El Nino," she said. "We can't tell you everything, but we have looked back historically and seen some winters with it had significant snowstorms."

Information about El Nino is available at MEMA's toll-free number, 800-422-8799, and its Web site at www.mema.state.md.us. Information also is available from the National Weather Service Web site of www.nws.noaa.gov/er/lwx.

Pub Date: 12/17/97

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