In bitter cold, a bit of snow

Storm is sweeping down from Canada atop unusually low temperatures

February 06, 2007|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun reporter

If numbed fingers, dead car batteries and frozen pipes didn't convince you that Maryland's winter is finally getting serious, consider this: An Alberta clipper is likely to drop a coating of snow in time for rush hour tomorrow morning.

Depending on the storm's track, "I think that will actually produce ... on the order of a couple of inches in places," said Jeff Warner, a meteorologist with Penn State Weather Communications. "Two to 4 inches is not out of the question for a couple of spots."

The storm sweeping out of Alberta, Canada, follows days of frigid temperatures and biting winds that made walking outdoors an ordeal for people such as Mildred L. Homa, who hurried to lunch near Baltimore's Inner Harbor yesterday, groaning and clamping her hands over her ears to keep out the icy breeze.

"It's like arctic cold out here," she hissed through clenched teeth.

Thermometers struggled to reach 20 degrees yesterday at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, about the same as Anchorage, Alaska. Winds gusted to 32 mph, pushing the effective temperature on exposed skin to near zero.

The low in Baltimore was expected to reach single digits before daybreak today, the first time that has happened since January 2005. The record low for a Feb. 6 in Baltimore is 1 degree Fahrenheit, last reached in 1895.

Meteorologists blamed all this on a "direct discharge" of frigid air from the Arctic that plunged due south into the Midwest with sub-zero temperatures in many locations. The cold wind is also sweeping moisture off the Great Lakes, dumping several feet of lake-effect snow on parts of Pennsylvania and New York.

Bone-chilling cold sent temperatures as low as 42 below zero in northern Minnesota. Across the northern Plains and the Great Lakes states, it shut down schools for thousands of youngsters yesterday, sent homeless people into shelters and put car batteries on the disabled list.

"Anybody in their right mind wouldn't want to be out in weather like this," Lawrence Wiley, 57, said at the crowded Drop Inn Center homeless shelter where he has been living in Cincinnati. Lows in the area yesterday were in the single digits.

Those temperatures moderate a bit by the time the air reaches Baltimore, "but it's still obviously very cold air," said Warner.

Nobody needed to explain that to Jacinta A. Ocambo, who huddled over a heater in the glass-walled parking attendant's shack at the Inner Harbor's Pier 5 Hotel.

She wrapped a blanket over her lap and stuffed washcloths into cracks in the booth's walls to stop the cold wind from blowing in. "I used to live in Boston," she said, "and I feel like I'm back there."

The 13-state power grid that serves Maryland set a winter demand record yesterday. During the morning, the PJM Interconnection was cranking out 112,500 megawatts, eclipsing the previous high of 110,414 megawatts, set Dec. 14, 2005. The region was not expected to reach its peak for the day until evening.

Not everyone was impressed with the cold. Louis D. Gibson, a city sanitation worker, said the trick to staying warm is to keep moving.

Though he added long underwear and a hooded sweat shirt under his green coveralls yesterday, he said he has seen colder days in his seven years with the Department of Public Works.

"This is nothing," he said. "Cold is when you have to put Vaseline on your face to keep the wind from cutting at your skin."

He and a co-worker alternated between emptying trash cans and riding on the back of their garbage truck along their route in West Baltimore. "We stay warm running behind the truck," he said.

The cold blast was a particular shock after a relatively mild early winter. The period from Thanksgiving through mid-January was the third-warmest on record for Baltimore, according to the National Weather Service. Only in 1931-1932 and 1889-1890 was the same time period warmer.

Until mid-January, Warner said, the eastern two-thirds of the country was locked in a pattern of southwesterly winds, keeping Maryland consistently mild and virtually snowless.

Then, the pattern relented, he said, "and we started getting some surges of chill in from the northwest and west."

Now it's plenty cold enough to snow, and forecasters were watching a Canadian-born disturbance that was headed our way and could make tomorrow morning a tricky one for commuters. The clipper is a relatively weak storm without much moisture to drop as snow.

A big snow, if it comes, isn't likely to arrive until the jet stream shifts and nudges the mass of cold air a bit west of where it is now, Warner said.

That would send the jet stream, and the storm track, flowing along the east side of the cold air and up the Atlantic Coast. That's just the sort of conveyor belt needed to bring a wet Gulf Coast storm into collision with the cold air and trigger a major East Coast snowstorm.

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