Lamblike winter marches on: Weather: This season may go into the record books as one of the 10 warmest in Baltimore in 127 years.

March 02, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The wintry music of ice chippers and spinning tires has been replaced this year with the sound of weather records toppling, or at least teetering a bit.

The winter of 1997-1998 (weather forecasters close the books March 1), is stacking up as one of the 10 warmest in 127 years of record-keeping in Baltimore, the National Weather Service reports.

And only one winter in that time has seen less snow than the measly 1.1 inches that have fallen on the city this year.

On the other hand, a series of northeasters powered by the El Nino phenomenon has driven rainfall totals to more than twice the norm in January and February.

The mild weather has nurtured Marylanders' thoughts of flowers and fresh air, and prompted hopeful calls to garden stores.

"People are anxious for spring to get here," said Ken Ruhl, vice president at Valley View Farms in Cockeysville.

It also has saved Marylanders a bundle on heating bills. They're venturing out in light coats, even shorts. Cafes and delis have tables out on sidewalks that would still be ice-covered in other years.

Lawns are greening. Pansies have been blooming all winter. Spring bulbs have sprouted, and buds are swelling on the trees in defiance of the calendar.

"A lot of people are concerned about it," said Ruhl. "We get calls and we normally advise people to just let nature take its course. There's very little detrimental about it."

But we're not out of Old Man Winter's woods yet. Snow and a hard freeze are not impossible, even as a lamblike March trots in.

Older Baltimoreans can recall the Palm Sunday storm on March 29, 1942, which paralyzed the city beneath 21.9 inches of wet snow.

Even youngsters may remember the 11.3-inch snowstorm on March 13, 1993, part of a big coastal storm that dropped several feet elsewhere to our west and south.

March can do almost anything in Baltimore. It was 90 degrees March 29, 1945. And on March 11, 1960, the low was 6 degrees.

Here are some highlights from the past three months:

The average temperature for the season was about 40 degrees, placing it among the 10 warmest on record in Baltimore, said Barry Goldsmith, a weather service meteorologist in Sterling, Va. The warmest was 1948-1949 at 42.3 degrees.

The snowfall watch at Baltimore-Washington International Airport will continue. But through February, it has totaled 1.1 inches. That's the second-lowest on record, and the least the city has seen in 48 years. The least-snowy winter since 1871 was 1949-1950 with 0.7 of an inch. Baltimore's average accumulation is 22 inches.

Precipitation was below normal in December. But since Jan. 1, more than 11.9 inches have fallen at BWI. That's more than twice the usual amount.

Daily rainfall records fell twice in January and twice more in February as a series of northeasters sloshed up the East Coast and lashed the state with heavy rain and wind.

The flow of fresh water into the Chesapeake Bay was more than twice the normal amount in February, setting a record of 152.4 billion gallons a day, according to the United States Geological Survey. And January posted the second-highest flow on record into the bay.

Ground-water levels statewide have recovered from the lows reached during last summer's drought, and the Baltimore reservoir system has returned to near-normal levels.

Since Dec. 1, BWI has seen 12 days with highs above 60 degrees, including a seven-day stretch of 60-plus days in January. And in all that time, there was just one day with a low below 20 degrees. The mercury fell to 17 on New Year's Day.

That's a blessing for anyone who pays to heat a home or business.

"It looks like this January was 26 percent milder than usual, and February is shaping up 20 percent milder," said Peggy Mulloy, spokeswoman for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

"Residential customers typically are going to be happy to know that they saw approximately a $23 savings on their January electric bill. That's a pretty nice chunk of change."

It's a big chunk of change lost to BGE's revenues, too. "Overall, for the past two months, total electric sales are down 9 percent," Mulloy said. That follows a mild summer and another mild winter last year.

"But putting it in the big picture, Wall Street values shares based on long-term projections. It's one of those fluky things, and we have to go with it. But it's a good news story for consumers," Mulloy said.

It's been a good news story for commuters, too. A mild winter means cars start more easily and don't get stuck in ice or snow.

Sharon Perry, public affairs manager for the American Automobile Association's Maryland chapter, said calls for road service totaled 66,000 for December through February, down 26 percent from the same period last year.

On the farm, the wet, mild weather is a mixed blessing.

"It's sometimes been a blessing because it gives the [winter] wheat a good start," said Charles Less, a crop statistician for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

On the other hand, he said, "a lot of wet weather has caused problems in pastures. They're really soggy and the livestock kind of tear the sod apart."

There is a great deal of standing water in some fields, especially on the Eastern Shore, Less said, which could delay planting.

The lack of prolonged cold this winter could also affect fruit trees.

"They don't seem to bud right and set fruit unless they've had some really cold weather," said state crop statistician Carroll Homann. "It should be down in the 20s for five to 10 days."

In Baltimore, at least, there hasn't been a day all winter with a high below freezing. The coldest stretch was eight days in mid-December, with lows in the 20s. There were only two consecutive days with highs in the 30s -- Dec. 31 to Jan. 1.

Asked if he could recall another winter like this one, Homann, who retires this spring after 32 years with the Agriculture Department, said simply, "No."

Pub Date: 3/02/98

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