Maryland withering under extreme drought Glendening to seek disaster designation for nine counties

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

While the Gulf Coast sops up after Hurricane Georges' torrential rains, Central Maryland remains parched by three months of drought that federal climatologists now rank as severe to extreme.

The damage goes beyond crispy lawns and a disappointing fall foliage season.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening is expected to ask the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare drought disasters in nine Maryland counties, where some farmers are facing the loss of up to 60 percent of their corn or soybean crops.

"In dollars, it won't be anywhere near what last year was, or what [the droughts of] 1986 and 1983 were," said Tony Evans, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

But "we're getting hit with all sorts of double economic whammies this year because the price of grain has gone in the tank. So, we have few units to sell, and they will sell at a greatly reduced price," he said. "Agriculture is not too profitable these days."

Barely 3.6 inches of rain has fallen at Baltimore-Washington International Airport since July 1, less than one-third of the 11 inches of rain that is normal for the period.

Perusing the latest federal drought maps at the Sterling, Va., forecast office yesterday, National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Strong said much of Central Maryland fell last week into the extreme drought category.

"It's one of the driest areas around in the East," he said. The area incudes the Eastern Shore from roughly Queen Anne's to Dorchester counties, and the Western Shore from Baltimore to the Patuxent River.

Eastern regions also facing extreme drought conditions were southern Alabama (prior to Hurricane Georges) and northwestern Pennsylvania.

Moderate to severe drought persists from Alabama through the higher elevations of Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, the rest HTC of Maryland east of Garrett County, Delaware, New Jersey, and eastern and western Pennsylvania.

Long-range forecasts hold little hope for relief. In fact, the weather service's 90-day outlook says there is a slightly greater likelihood of drier than normal weather through December.

El Nino-driven rains last winter and spring left the Baltimore region's reservoirs full and got Maryland's growing season off to a good start. But around the first of July, El Nino ended and the spigot shut off.

"We went into a La Nina phase," said Dave Miskus, section chief at the Joint Agricultural Weather Facility in Washington.

La Nina is an abnormal cooling of surface waters in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean that sometimes follows El Nino -- an

abnormal warming of the same region. Both phenomena can have dramatic impacts on global weather patterns by altering storm tracks and the positions of atmospheric pressure systems.

La Nina's local impacts are "pretty much the opposite from what El Nino does," Miskus said. El Nino brought wet weather and storms to the southern tier of the United States last winter and spring. The summer brought La Nina, storm tracks went elsewhere, and the South dried out.

"We did, too," Miskus said.

BWI recorded just four days of measurable rain -- a total of 1.42 inches -- in July. August brought only three days of rain, totaling 0.91 of an inch.

September ended this week having added just 1.27 inches of precipitation on six days at BWI. Many areas nearby had even less rain.

And it was hot. On average, September ended 3.2 degrees warmer than normal -- the fifth hottest September in the past 50 years -- and the hottest since 1980.

The month produced eight days with highs in the 90s, the same number as in August. The high of 95 degrees on Sept. 27 set a record for the date, erasing the 91-degree mark set in 1933.

Baltimore enjoyed some relief. There was a cool stretch from Sept. 8 to 10, when highs at BWI were in the 70s. During another three-day break last week, the daily highs twice stalled in the 60s. The low for the month at BWI was 42 degrees on Sept. 24.

Water levels at Baltimore's three reservoirs have fallen 2 to 7 feet since filling to the brim during the rains last winter and spring. But they remain above normal for this time of year. "We're doing extremely well," said Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the city Department of Public Works.

Pub Date: 10/02/98

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