Winter's big one still ahead January: Warm, wet and windy, the month lived up to its forecast. But that doesn't rule out heavy snow before spring.

January 31, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Sure, the tree buds are swelling and bulbs are sprouting. There was even a seven-day stretch in January with high temperatures in the 60s.

But meteorologists warn that we're not out of this winter's woods yet.

"People shouldn't think that because it's been mild and rainy this winter that it's going to stay that way," said Richard Hitchens, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service's Sterling, Va., forecast office.

To the contrary: "The running feeling in the office here is that we're going to get one mega [snow]storm this winter," Hitchens said.

That's in line with last fall's predictions for this El Nino winter in Maryland: mild on average, with repeated coastal storms and, if cold air slips in at the right moment, a doubled risk of at least one big storm packing 8 inches of snow or more.

"I think everything is progressing as expected," said Robert Livezey, senior research meteorologist at the weather service's Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs.

"We have been getting the nor'easters here," he said. "If that cold air gets combined with one of these disturbances -- and we are going to have more of these disturbances -- we are going to have lots and lots of snow."

That's exactly what happened in four of the eight most recent El Nino winters, among them 1983, when a 22.8-inch snowstorm paralyzed Baltimore.

Snow in Appalachians

The latest northeaster barreled up the coast on Tuesday and Wednesday, dropping as much as 4 feet of snow on the southern Appalachians and lashing the Atlantic shore with high winds and rain.

In Ocean City, wind gusts up to 70 mph tore up roofs and siding. High waves, amplified by tides swollen by a new moon, battered the dunes and flooded streets.

On nearby Assateague Island, waves and tides raked 3 1/2 feet of sand and vegetation from the island's fragile north end, said Marc Koenings, superintendent of the Assateague National Seashore.

At Maryland's Assateague State Park, three-quarters of the dune line was destroyed, and damage was estimated at $750,000.

Above average

Overall, January delivered 5.65 inches of precipitation at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

That is 2.6 inches more than the airport's 30-year average of 3.05 inches.

The big rains began with a 1.06-inch appetizer on Jan. 15. That was followed by a three-day northeaster Jan. 22-24 that left behind 3.11 inches of precipitation. This week's storm left just over 2 inches at the airport.

The first storms saturated the ground, leaving subsequent rains nowhere to go but downhill, or into the nearest accessible basement.

Toni Jubb, who answers the phones for Oriole Basement Waterproofing in Baltimore, said she has fielded "hundreds" of calls this week. "Some of the older women were crying," she said. "It's a lot to have to clean up something like that."

More rain due

At Anchor Waterproofing, also in Baltimore, Sandy Morstein said, "We all have stiff necks from having the phones to our ears. People want to see you yesterday. You can hear the Wet-Vac in the background."

More rain is due Monday and Tuesday.

Temperatures in January averaged 41.4 degrees through Thursday -- about 9.6 degrees above normal.

That makes it the third-warmest January since record-keeping began at BWI in 1950.

Daily high temperatures never slipped below 35 degrees (on New Year's Day). They topped 60 degrees seven times (Jan. 3-9). The lows -- normally about 23 degrees -- fell below freezing on 14 dates.

The warm weather echoes global trends that made 1997 the warmest year of the 20th century, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Global land and ocean surface temperatures in 1997 averaged 0.75 degree Fahrenheit above the 30-year norm and beat the previous record (1990) by 0.15 degrees, NOAA reported.

Warming records

Nine of the past 11 years have now set warming records. With the new data, scientists said, global warming trends now exceed 1.0 degree Fahrenheit per 100 years, with land temperatures warming a bit faster than the water.

"It is likely that the sustained trend toward increasingly warmer global temperatures is related to anthropogenic [man-made] increases in greenhouse gases," said Tom Karl, senior scientist at the National Climatic Data Center.

The precise nature of the relationship, however, remains a point of scientific debate.

December was 2 degrees milder than normal, averaging 38.7 degrees.

Snowfall at BWI in December and January totaled just 1.1 inches, compared with a 30-year norm of 10.2 inches for the two months, Hitchens said.

Snowiest month

February is typically Maryland's snowiest month, averaging 7.6 inches. The seasonal norm is 22 inches.

Much of Western Maryland, thanks to its higher elevations, had temperatures cold enough to turn this week's northeaster into a snowstorm.

"It was so elevation-driven that Cumberland [at about 700 feet] only got an inch or two, while Frostburg [at more than 2,000 feet] got a foot," Hitchens said.

Pub Date: 1/31/98

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