The weather outside was surprisingly delightful. But since we've got places to go, it's probably going to snow.
Though temperatures reached the upper 60s — near record levels — throughout central Maryland on Monday, the wild weather swing in the Mid-Atlantic is expected to continue with accumulating snow possible on one busiest travel days of the year, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. A little after 3 p.m. on Monday, the National Weather Service announced a Winter Storm Watch for much of central Maryland, including Carroll County, for Wednesday.
Predicted snowfall? Five inches or more.
The impending winter storm wasn't clouding the outdoor activities of people in Carroll on Monday however, when many people were out taking advantage of the sun and warm breezes while they could.
"We're just really excited to get outside to the playground for what might be the last time before winter arrives," said Shannin Sheasby, of Westminster. She had brought her children, Noah and Ella, to the Westminster City Park playground that afternoon, all while marveling at the impending winter holidays and predicted snowfall.
"We were just looking at the Christmas tree and thinking it's so strange that we will be at the Christmas parade on Saturday."
The temperate and frigid extremes are two sides of the same coin, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Hofmann. A slight change in the weather pattern that brought arctic temperatures to the region last week shifted to the northwest Monday, allowing a warm front to move through Maryland, he explained.
"We have been in a pretty amplified wavy pattern where the jet stream takes big dips to the north or south," he said Monday afternoon. "We are in a position where the winds are from the south right now. That's bringing in much warmer air."
The jet stream being "wavy" — the favored term among meteorologists, according to Hofmann — will shift southeast again, bringing back the cold air through the latter half of the week, along with a chance for cold rain, or heavy, wet snow, or both
"It will gradually get colder over the next few days," he said. "A low pressure system will move up along the eastern seaboard and the precipitation associated with that low pressure system will fall into that colder air."
Cold and precipitation are definite, but just where the line between cold rain and wet snow will fall is difficult to call until closer to the time of the actual storm on Wednesday, according to Hofmann, though he added that even if the Baltimore metro area were to dodge a major snowfall, the picture in Carroll could be very different.
"In Carroll County, the odds seem to tilted in favor, at this junction, of being a little colder and snowier," he said. "You're a little further inland, a little higher elevation and a little further north."
Regardless of where and when rain gives way to snow, the combination of cold temperatures, precipitation and lots of vehicles could be hazardous. The National Weather Service Winter Storm watch is in effect from Wednesday morning through that afternoon and the agency says the weather conditions "may have a significant impact on holiday travel plans."
Planning ahead and paying attention to changing weather reports is one of the best ways to avoid travel problems during the holidays in general, and doubly so with poor weather on the horizon, according to Christine Delise, senior public affairs specialist at AAA Mid-Atlantic.
"Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel days and maybe even is the busiest travel day of the year. When you throw in inclement weather it certainly will add a wrinkle to travel plans," she said. "We do advise that if you are driving, consider delaying travel until the storm passes and road conditions improve or try to get ahead of the storm. If you are heading north, try to leave on Tuesday. If heading south, consider delaying travel."
Delise said AAA advises anyone flying for Thanksgiving monitor weather updates for departure times and destination cities to avoid dangerous rushing to the airport in poor weather or getting stuck by the weather. She recommends using the Federal Aviation Administration's flight delay website at http://www.fly.faa.gov/flyfaa/usmap.jsp.
For motorists who have no choice but to drive in the winter weather, Delise said it is important to stay focused on the road to keep a holiday from becoming a tragedy.
"It's not a time to be chatting on the phone, even it if it is hands-free," she said. "It's time to slow down, increase your following distance and if you are traveling with kids, make sure they are safely buckled in with books and games so they are not a distraction to the driver."
When it comes to Maryland's roads, the State Highway Administration is prepared for the storm and winter in general, with more than 380,000 tons of salt in salt domes and barns across the state, according to SHA Spokesman Charlie Gischlar. He did say, however, the nature of Wednesday's storm might make the roads especially hazardous in the early hours of the transition from rain to snow or wintry mix and he urged motorists to yield to SHA crews as they work to get the roads salted and cleared.
"It appears that it will at least start as rain, which precludes our pre-treating with salt brine," Gischlar said. "We'll be out there before it changes. Try to stay behind us, let us clear the roadways. It's going to be crowded ... . Take it slow on snow and ice."
While a winter storm at Thanksgiving may not be appreciated, it was not exactly unexpected either, if the way Carroll residents have been preparing for winter is any indication. At Lowes Home Improvement in Westminster, manger Jim Smith said customers were buying salt, snow shovels and calling to inquire about his stock of snow blowers on Monday despite the spring-like weather.
At Bowman's Feed and Pet in Westminster, sales associate Ciara Barron said salt and snow shovel sales have been brisk for almost a month.
"Everybody is preparing for the worst winter in the world," she said. "Ever since it got cold really fast, everybody is kind of trembling about it."
While meteorologists are not calling for the worst winter ever, Hofmann said that slightly higher than normal snowfall over the course of the entire winter is certainly a possibility.
There are a lot of factors to consider he said, but the warmer than normal waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean, also known as El Niño, often portend for more winter precipitation. Combined with the "wavy" jet stream, and things look snowy.
"The patten we have been in, and the pattern it looks like we are going to have going to this winter season, has been pretty active," he said. "As long as we hold this pattern, we would expect continue seeing stormy weather."
A snowy Thanksgiving and a potentially snowy winter season were hardly surprising to Rahul Mehra, of Westminster, who along with his son Eli was also enjoying the temperate afternoon at Westminster City Park on Monday. Given the forecast, he said his family wasn't planning on traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday, but would enjoy the sun Monday afternoon and wait for what comes this winter.
"It is what it is, that's what happens here," he said. "You got to expect it, it's autumn. The weather is going to change."