The Baltimore area's January warm-weather streak -- which recorded its third consecutive day of 60-plus-degree ' temperatures yesterday -- may seem odd to those recovering from last week's freezing temperatures, but it's actually not unusual.
In fact, there was a similar warm spell last January, when temperatures went from a cool high of 33 degrees on Jan. 1 at Baltimore-Washington International Airport to 69 degrees four days later -- the record high for Jan. 5.
This January "is almost a carbon copy, give or take 5 degrees each day," said Barry Goldsmith, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va. "That's kind of ironic."
The current trend of warm weather began Friday, which topped off at 59 degrees at BWI, where the weather service takes its official readings. High temperatures have been in the 60s since Saturday, hitting 68 degrees on Sunday and 64 yesterday. In Baltimore, the high yesterday was 68 degrees at Custom House. The National Weather Service predicts temperatures will continue in the 60s today.
Weather experts want to make it clear that El Nino is not responsible for the nice weather.
"Last year, there was no El Nino and we had the record high," said Andy Stern, a meteorologist for the weather service. "To have temperatures in the 60s to 70s is not uncommon -- it's referred to as a January thaw."
In 1995, a similar January thaw brought temperatures in the upper 60s to lower 70s for four days, Goldsmith said. And 1990 set a record high of 67 degrees for Jan. 17 and equaled the record of 68 for Jan. 18.
Yesterday's pleasant weather -- with temperatures reaching an unofficial 61 degrees in Cumberland, 65 in Hagerstown and 70 in Salisbury -- was caused by warm southwest breezes from the Gulf of Mexico, Stern said.
But that won't last, the weather service predicts. Starting tomorrow, the forecast calls for gradual cooling, with Friday high temperatures dipping into the high 40s and low 50s.
Rain also is in the forecast, with a slight chance of showers today, a better chance on Wednesday and the highest possibility on Thursday.
That's still an improvement over last year, when the January thaw was followed by a 2 1/2 -inch snowfall on Jan. 9.
Short-term predictions for this month don't indicate snow. And so far, less snow -- or, at least, more days with above-freezing temperatures -- is good news for area cleanup crews.
In the city, the Department of Public Works has used just 153 tons of its 19,000 tons of salt, and that was in December.
Meanwhile, Baltimore-area stores have seen unseasonable purchases because of the warm spell. Sales of in-line skates over the past few days have been good, said Hal Ashman, owner of the Ultimate Sports store in Timonium. And at the Towson Home Depot, lawn mower purchases have picked up, said manager Ira Wallace.
At the same time, some retailers are experiencing brisk sales on winter-related items. At the Dundalk Home Depot, salt and snow blowers have been selling like ice cream in summer, while Ultimate Sports saw its snowboard-related purchases go up 20 percent from last year. And 1997 was a good year for the store.
Snowboard sales "have been berserk," said Ashman, attributing the sales to snowfalls in New England and Colorado.
While the unseasonably warm weather might be appreciated by some, it has the potential to spell trouble for the landscape. A week of temperatures that are 15 to 20 degrees above normal "can start fooling some plants," said Tony Evans, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
The dormant plants think it's spring -- and then die when the temperatures get cold again.
"We had that phenomenon back in '91," Evans said. "We had a prolonged warm spell and then, bang, within hours [temperatures] dropped drastically."
Ninety percent of the peach crop froze, he said.
But the weather service predicts it won't stay warm much longer.
"There's cold air on the way, so enjoy this week," Goldsmith said. "Next week, we might actually be somewhat below normal."
Pub Date: 1/06/98