'03 Baltimore's wettest year, with more to come

Holiday's rainfall floats total past record of 1889

December 25, 2003|By Dan Fesperman and Frank D. Roylance | Dan Fesperman and Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Christmas Eve's morning downpour made it official: 2003 is Baltimore's wettest year on record, surpassing a mark set in 1889.

Nature's soggy generosity - already evident in a year of record snowfalls, brimming reservoirs, leaky roofs and mildewed basements - sloshed past the old mark of 62.35 inches shortly before 10 a.m. yesterday at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"This is a long-standing record, a very long-standing record," said meteorologist David Manning of the National Weather Service. "In Baltimore the official records go back to 1871."

When the city's last rainfall record was set, Benjamin Harrison was president and the White House was being outfitted with its first electric lights. The highest annual salary in Major League Baseball was $2,500, and Baltimore's population of 434,439 made it the nation's seventh-largest city.

It was also the year of the infamous Johnstown (Pa.) Flood, in which heavy rains and a weakened dam led to the deaths of 2,200 people May 31.

The consequences of yesterday's record-breaking soak were comparatively tame - clogged traffic as last-minute shoppers headed for the malls, and perhaps a few more dripping ceilings and puddled basements.

By 8 p.m. yesterday, with skies clearing in anticipation of a partly cloudy Christmas morning, 0.68 inches had fallen for the day, raising the year's precipitation total to 62.56.

The year's final week might yet raise the total. Forecasters expect more showers to arrive Monday night.

"The potential is there for an inch or more of rain," says Todd Miner, a meteorologist with the Penn State Weather Communications Group, in State College, Pa.

Miner said the chief culprit, as it was through most of the fall, is a jet stream swerving south through the Ohio Valley before sailing across the Eastern Seaboard out of the southwest.

That sort of air flow, he said, "tends to develop zones of low pressure - storms - inside that flow."

So far, precipitation during 2003 is more than 20 inches in excess of the 41.94-inch average for Baltimore over the past 30 years. But the current run of wet weather actually began in October 2002.

The 6 inches of rain that fell on BWI that month marked the beginning of the end of the record drought of 2001-2002. The yearlong dry spell had drained area reservoirs, depleted ground-water supplies and triggered water-use restrictions across Maryland and much of the Northeast.

But by May 2003, all three reservoirs serving Baltimore and its suburbs were overflowing. In the 15 months since Oct. 1, 2002, more than 76 inches of precipitation has fallen, a surplus of more than 2 feet.

In all that time, only two months - January and April 2003 - saw precipitation fall short of the 30-year norms for BWI.

The year's wettest month was September, when 7.47 inches fell at the airport. That total was boosted by Tropical Storm Isabel, which delivered 2.13 inches of rain Sept. 18 alone. But there were 14 rainy days that month, and the wettest storm came after Isabel - 2.4 inches Sept. 22 and 23.

February 2003 saw the greatest departure from normal precipitation - a 3.68-inch bonus on top of the 3.02-inch norm.

The month included the Presidents Day weekend snowstorm, a four-day onslaught that buried the airport under 28.2 inches of snow. That was the equivalent of 2.73 inches of rain. And it was followed days later by a cold, three-day rain that added 2.65 inches.

The driest month this year was April, when less than 2 1/2 inches fell at BWI, short of the 3-inch norm but unremarkable in a more typical year.

And it has been raining hard - or snowing - ever since. There were 25 rainy days in May and 22 in June. Each of those months saw nearly 7 inches of precipitation.

The summer months were the wettest in 24 years and the 16th-wettest on record.

Every month from May through November saw at least 4 1/2 inches of rain. And the airport got nearly that much in a downpour from Oct. 26 to 29. That storm unloaded more water than either the February blizzard or Isabel.

Sun library researcher Charlene Prem contributed to this article.

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