Finishing with a flourish

Weather: Springlike temperatures on the last day of February are a fitting end to a stubbornly cold and snowy 3 months.

March 01, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The National Weather Service bulletin said it all with telegraphic brevity: "March coming in like a lamb."

After a winter many will recall as snowy and stubbornly cold, February melted into history yesterday. It was one leap day late in departing, but left with a brilliant flourish of springlike sunshine and 65-degree temperatures.

The weather drew thousands to Baltimore's waterfront, many in short pants, short sleeves and sunglasses they hadn't worn in months.

"We got our bikes out of the basement and got some lunch out here by the water," said Aaron Chambers, 27, a Johns Hopkins medical student. After pedaling from their home near Patterson Park, he and his wife, Lori, 28, sat beside the Harbor East promenade, basking in bike shorts and eating salads from plastic boxes.

"I've never been so ready for winter to be over," he said.

It can snow in Baltimore in March. Old-timers may remember the 22-inch Palm Sunday storm in late March 1942.

But there's no immediate risk of that. The high yesterday at Baltimore-Washington International Airport touched 65 degrees, after a frosty morning low of 26. The forecast calls for highs in the 50s and 60s all week, with a chance of rain tomorrow and Thursday.

The balmy forecast drew Carol Baker, 59, to Baltimore from Belleville, Pa., yesterday, a day early for a meeting of federal grant managers. She spent it alternately strolling the waterfront promenade and stopping to read a book.

"It's a wonderful day to be out enjoying the sunshine after such a long and terrible winter," she said.

Others just couldn't seem to let winter go. Melvin and Phyllis Nass, visiting from Deerfield Beach, Fla., had their grandchildren, Sam, Eli and Josh Nass, ages 6, 3 and 1, on the very wet and slushy ice at the Baltimore Ice Rink at Harbor Point. "Last year when we were here it was a blizzard," Melvin Nass said.

Spring doesn't officially arrive until March 20, but for meteorologists, at least, the end of February means the end of a winter season that began Dec. 1. So how bad was it?

December and January were unusually snowy, the experts say. And January was very cold.

But each of the winter months also saw one day in the 60s, and there were 22 days that broke 50 degrees. And after Feb. 6, the machinery of winter broke down. The season ended with normal snowfall and near-normal cold.

But that's not what people are likely to remember. "If it felt like a cold winter to you, that's what it was," said Ed O'Lenic of the federal Climate Prediction Center.

The winter season began with twin snowstorms on Dec. 5 and 6 that dumped more than 9 inches on BWI - five times the month's normal snowfall. It was deeper north and west of the city.

It was cold, too, with 12 of the first 15 days of December averaging below-normal temperatures. Snow, sleet and icy rain seemed the Baltimore area's lot.

Then the area caught a break. On Dec. 23, the thermometer at BWI hit 62 degrees. On Jan. 6, it was 63, but the respite didn't last. Temperatures plummeted the next day and stayed low, producing the coldest January in a decade and the ninth-coldest in Baltimore since 1871.

From Jan. 6 through the end of the month, only eight days climbed above freezing. Snow and ice consumed school snow days, road salt and highway overtime budgets. Furnaces struggled. Heating demand climbed 15 percent above the January norm.

The 10th and 11th days of January dawned with lows of 6 degrees and 7 degrees at BWI. Water mains cracked, power lines snapped and creeks - even portions of the Chesapeake Bay - froze over.

Nearly all of January's precipitation fell as snow or a nasty "wintry mix." In all, 8.4 inches of snow piled up at the airport, an inch and a half more than average.

January seemed miserably wet. But it was the driest month in Baltimore in two years and the sixth-driest January on record, with just 1.26 inches of precipitation - more than 2 inches below normal.

February started out cold, too. It was just 8 degrees on the 1st and colder than normal for the next week. But then temperatures moderated, with 13 days in the 50s or higher.

February precipitation at BWI was about normal, but there has been just a 10th of an inch of snow since Feb. 6, a far cry from the record 40 inches last February.

In the end, the snowfall totaled 18 inches from December through February - precisely average for BWI during the full season if it snows no more. (March averages 2.4 inches.)

And the season's average temperature was about 33 degrees - 2 degrees below normal. Demand for heating was just 1.5 percent above normal.

So, did forecasters slip up on the cold, snow and ice?

The National Weather Service said in October that its instruments offered no clue which way the weather vane was pointing. But speaking off the cuff, O'Lenic did predict "quite a bit of variability this winter." He got that right.

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