Our winter roller-coaster is mostly an average ride

There has been some snow and some cold weather, but the season is shaping up to be rather unremarkable


Officially, winter has another week to run in Baltimore. But it felt more like summer yesterday as the temperature soared to 84 degrees.

Shorts and shirtsleeves appeared like blossoms on the streets, along with a few eager trees and bulbs that burst into flower.

The high at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport climbed 31 degrees above the long-term average for the date. But it was not quite enough to topple the record of 85 degrees, set March 13, 1990.

The unseasonable heat caps a roller-coaster winter that probably will fade into the record books looking unremarkably average.

"The numbers were all about normal," said John Darnley, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service's Sterling, Va., forecast office. Even the season's snowfall was close to average for Baltimore, Darnley said, but it was a disappointment for skiers such as himself.

"There was just the one storm [in February] that produced most of it," he said. "I didn't go skiing once this winter, and normally I average 10 times."

The warm weather is over for now. A cold front was expected to sweep through the region before dawn today, with gusty winds and a chance for an early-morning rattle of thunder.

Forecasters called for near-normal highs in the 50s for the rest of this week, slipping below normal - into the 40s with sunshine - for the weekend. Overnight lows will drop below freezing.

For the next 10 days, Baltimore is likely to be cooler than normal, and dry, Darnley said. "That's not a good thing, because we have been a little dry. You don't want to keep this trend going into the summer."

Eighty-degree weather in March does not necessarily portend a hot summer. The outlook from the national Climate Prediction Center shows no clear trends for temperatures or precipitation from June through August.

Yesterday was the hottest day in Baltimore since Sept. 23, when the mercury at BWI reached 93 degrees. And it was the first 80-degree weather since Sept. 26.

Darnley credited a strong flow of warm, moist air from the Gulf states.

"We've got this strong area of low pressure over the Great Lakes," he said, "and a southwest flow is bringing all this warm air right up into the region."

The warm air was rushing in ahead of an advancing cold front that extended south and west from the low - the same front that produced a string of deadly Midwest tornadoes late Sunday and early yesterday.

Highs reached the 80s yesterday all along the Middle Atlantic Coast. In Virginia, Richmond reported 85 degrees, and Norfolk reported 82. It was 84 in Washington.

The winter began with a respectable 6 inches of snow in December at BWI. It came in small increments, but the total was well above the month's long-term average of 1.7 inches.

Rough start

It was cold, too, averaging 34 degrees - 2.7 degrees colder than the norm. So it looked like the start of a rough winter.

But after Dec. 15, the snow stopped, and the flow of air across the continent shifted. The intrusions of cold, arctic air from Canada were replaced by a steady flow of milder Pacific air from west to east across the country.

Warm January

Temperatures in January averaged 41.5 degrees at BWI, making it the third-warmest January in Baltimore since 1950 - 9 degrees above the 30-year average for the month, and 7 degrees warmer than December.

Precipitation fell as rain, not snow. BWI saw only a trace of snow in January - the first time that has happened since 1973. And it was the sixth January without measurable snow since recordkeeping for snow began here in 1883.

`Degree days'

The mild weather was money in our pockets. Heating "degree days" - a temperature-based measure of heating demand - were 28 percent lower than average at BWI in January.

The mild weather persisted into early February. But the spell was broken on Feb. 11 and 12 as a classic nor'easter swept up the East Coast.

Snowy weekend

The weekend snowstorm dropped 13.1 inches at the airport, double the long-term average of 6.4 inches for the entire month. But some places just west and north of Baltimore saw as much as 20 inches.

Schools closed that Monday, but the cleanup was fast and life across the region quickly returned to normal. The impact was far greater elsewhere. New York City, for example, set an all-time snowfall record in Central Park, with 26.9 inches.

The National Climate Data Center later ranked the storm a Category 3 on the new Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale, 20th on the list of the worst Northeast snowstorms since 1948.

Temperatures dropped in February, too, reaching the winter's low of 12 degrees Feb. 19. But eight days in February topped 50 degrees, and the one big snowstorm was the last of the winter.

19.6 inches of snow

The season's snowfall stands at 19.6 inches, less than 2 inches above the long-term average of 18 inches for Baltimore.

Temperatures from December through February averaged about 2.5 degrees above average for the season. Precipitation was close to normal, too.

For the whole season, the number of heating degree days is running about 10 percent below the long-term averages. Despite the mild weather, higher prices for oil, gas and electricity pushed heating costs skyward.frank.roylance@baltsun.com

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