Md. says goodbye to winter that was unusually dry, mild

Forecasters expect heavy rain during first full day of spring

March 21, 2000|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Spring arrived in Maryland yesterday, and with it came a threat of heavy rain today for the Baltimore area, and flash flood warnings in parts of Western Maryland.

The vernal equinox also ended an unusually dry and mild winter in Maryland and much of the country.

Maryland can use the rain. The instruments at Baltimore-Washington International Airport recorded just 9.56 inches of precipitation from December through March 19, more than 3 inches below normal for the period.

The National Weather Service ranked December 1999 through February 2000 the 23rd-driest winter in Maryland since 1895. Nationally, it was the 16th driest winter in those 105 years.

Federal climatologists have warned of deepening drought conditions this spring across the southern tier of states, from Arizona to Georgia, and from Iowa to Indiana.

Maryland does not yet face a drought crisis this spring. "I would think that, given a decent rainfall now, we might be setting ourselves up for good conditions for planting come April," said Todd Miner, a meteorologist at the Penn State Weather Communications Group.

Ample winter snow helped to wet the fields. A total of 25.7 inches fell at BWI. That topped the 30-year norm of 22 inches for the season. Most of it came with a single surprise storm on Jan. 25 that dropped 14 to 20 inches on the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

All told, it was the snowiest winter here since 1995-1996, when more than 62 inches fell at BWI.

Mild temperatures, especially early in March, hastened this spring's daffodils and other bulbs, and the budding of forsythia and other flowering trees. The cherry blossoms are already in bloom in Washington, nearly two weeks early.

Winter temperatures averaged 2 degrees above normal at BWI -- the third mild winter in a row. Daily highs poked into the 60s and beyond each month. It was 70 degrees at BWI on Jan. 4; 79 degrees on Feb. 25, and 83 degrees on March 8.

The December low was 14 degrees on Christmas Day. It was 7 degrees at BWI on Jan. 30. February's low was 11 degrees on Feb. 3. March has dipped no lower than 25 degrees, on the 18th.

Two daily records were posted at BWI this winter, both record highs: 68 degrees set on Jan. 3, and 70 degrees tied on Jan. 4.

Homeowners burned less heating fuel than average this winter, thanks to the mild temperatures. The number of heating degree days at BWI -- a measure of heating fuel demand -- was 6.75 percent below normal from December through February. Soaring prices for heating oil, however, drove bills up sharply for oil consumers.

Nationally, Americans experienced the warmest winter since national record-keeping began in 1895, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Every state in the continental United States experienced a warmer-than-normal winter.

Temperatures across the U.S. averaged 38.4 degrees from December through February -- 0.6 degrees warmer than the previous record, set just last year. The third-warmest winter was 1997-98, which tied with 1991-92.

Since 1980, two-thirds of the winters in the U.S. have been warmer than the long-term average. Scientists debate whether this is evidence of global warming induced by human activity, a manifestation of natural long-term climatological cycles, or some complex combination of both.

Some argue whether the warm-up is a bad thing. Virtually all of them acknowledge that it is getting warmer.

Scientists have laid a portion of the blame for the past two mild winters, and the widespread dry weather, on the global influence of La Nina -- a vast pool of unusually cool surface waters in the eastern tropical Pacific.

Spring arrived officially at 2: 35 a.m. yesterday. That was the moment of the vernal equinox, when the sun appeared directly overhead at the equator in its annual migration from the southern to the northern hemisphere.

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