Early winter wallop delights and dismays

El Nino winter freezes snow days for studentsSnow: El Nino's effects hearten ski resort owners, replenish reservoirs and cancel school days. But not everyone's happy.

January 07, 2003|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Hold on to your ski cap, baby.

Just a few weeks into winter, the Baltimore area has received more than half of its average annual snowfall. And meteorologists who have studied El Nino winters past say the worst may be yet to come.

"I'd keep my snow shovel and ice melt handy," said meteorologist Jim Travers at the National Weather Service's Sterling, Va., forecast office.

After the warmth of last winter, the talk of snow has come as a relief to some area ski resorts and businesses -- as well as drought-stricken area reservoirs.

But students who have prayed for more time off could pay for it this spring: Some area school districts have already bankrupted their budgeted snow days.

As of yesterday morning, the Baltimore area had received 12.5 inches of snow. The brunt of it -- 9.7 inches -- fell last month, the snowiest December since 1989. The average annual snowfall in Baltimore is 22 inches.

Although police recorded no major snow-related traffic accidents yesterday, an 11-year-old Carroll County girl was flown by helicopter to Johns Hopkins Hospital after hurting her back in a sledding mishap.

The girl, who was not identified by authorities, was playing in a driveway near her home in a valley below Peppermint Lane, just southeast of Westminster.

Area school administrators say the abundance of snow may come back to haunt students in the form of longer school years or shorter spring vacations.

Carroll County and Baltimore City have used up all their snow days.

"At this point, if we have to close because of snow, we will add additional days to the end of the school year," said city schools spokeswoman Vanessa C. Pyatt.

Harford and Howard counties, which have exceeded their planned snow days, have already changed their calendars.

Howard County schools will now let out June 18, four days later than planned. In Harford County, the last day has been pushed back to June 16, officials said.

Several school systems are taking a hard look at the calendar to see whether spring break or other scheduled vacations between now and summer could be cut.

Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties have a few budgeted snow days left.

"But if the trend continues, we could find ourselves hurting," said Baltimore County schools spokesman Charles A. Herndon.

If snow days do continue to pile up, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick could waive the 180-day school attendance rule, something she did in 2000.

But not everybody is bemoaning the vigorous start to the snow season.

"Fabulous," was how spokeswoman Paula Yudelevit summed up the slopes at Wisp ski resort in McHenry.

During the Christmas and New Year's holidays, the resort sold 18,900 lift tickets, compared with just less than 11,700 the year before, she said.

Snowfall is also providing a boost to some area businesses.

Cindy Snyder of Snyder's Bootery in downtown Annapolis said rubber galoshes are going quickly. Last year, they didn't sell any.

And each falling flake is also helping to fill Baltimore's drought-depleted reservoirs.

Loch Raven is completely topped off. Liberty has surpassed 52 percent, while Prettyboy is slightly under half-full, officials said. Together, the volume of water in area reservoirs has risen to 65 percent of capacity.

But the system is normally about 79 percent full this time of year, public works officials said.

Weather in the mid-Atlantic is under the influence of El Nino, which occurs when surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean are unusually warm. This can result in wetter winters in the region.

Meteorologists say if temperatures remain low, it's a good bet that more snow is on the way. But predicting when and how much snow will fall is especially tricky during an El Nino winter -- as Sunday's storm demonstrated.

Many forecasters underestimated how much Sunday's storm would deliver, just as some were taken by surprise by a Christmas Day storm.

"In a winter like this, you know you're going to take your lumps," said Travers, of the National Weather Service. "Sometimes people expect more than we still can deliver."

Since 1950, there have been nine El Nino winters. Of those, five resulted in snowstorms of 8 inches or more in the Baltimore area.

Sun staff writers Laura Barnhardt, Tricia Bishop, Lane Harvey Brown, Athima Chansanchai, Dan Harsha, Jamie Smith Hopkins, Laura Loh and Luke Tracy contributed to this article.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.