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La Nina may keep us warm through winter Weather: Forecasters say the balmy and dry days of fall could continue the next few months. But that means Maryland's drought will persist.


Marylanders enjoying the long, mild and sunny autumn of 1998 must be figuring they'll have to pay for it with a harsh winter.

Relax. As weather forecasters open their winter season today, ,, they're predicting more of the same -- above-normal temperatures for the Baltimore region through March, with normal, or below-normal precipitation.

That doesn't mean no snow."It's pretty rare that we escape a winter without snow. It's way too early to foreclose our hopes for snow right now," said Ed O'Lenic, a meteorologist at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction in Camp Springs.

"But there definitely is a tendency for us to have fewer heavy snowstorms during a La Nina winter," he said. And this will be a La Nina winter.

"La Nina" is a global shift in weather patterns, triggered by an abnormal cooling of the surface waters of the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean.

The current La Nina began in July, following close on the heels of "El Nino" -- an abnormal warming of the same region of the Pacific. It has been linked to the most deadly and destructive North Atlantic hurricane season on record.

While a balmy Thanksgiving weekend has most Marylanders marveling at how warm it has been this fall, the real news in November was the continuing scarcity of rainfall.

November wasn't really all that warm. Although Sunday's high of 73 degrees was 22 degrees above normal for the date, November's temperatures averaged more than a degree below normal at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. That's because of some cool weather early in the month, and nighttime lows averaging more than 3 degrees below normal.

The warm days and cold nights can both be blamed on the clear skies and light winds that prevailed in November, said Jim Decarufel, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service forecast office in Sterling, Va.

"The high pressure over the area, and the light wind allows the sun to heat up the atmosphere more during the day, but it radiates [the heat back into space] at night," he said.

Persistent high pressure and clear skies have been the story for Maryland since the La Nina weather pattern settled in last July, O'Lenic said.

La Nina has shifted the high-altitude jet stream that steers storms across North America. In this case, it has been steering them away from Maryland.

"The storm track tends to be pushed into the Ohio Valley, the Great Lakes and New York, instead of being a little farther south," O'Lenic said.

That has cost the Baltimore region nearly a foot of rain since July 1. Only 1.13 inches fell at BWI during November, just one-third of the month's normal precipitation.

Moderate to extreme drought conditions persist in all but the extreme western sections of the state. Worst hit are the communities between Baltimore and the Patuxent River.

Drought conditions extend throughout Virginia, to parts of North and South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida. But only in north-central Florida are the conditions as severe as in the

Maryland counties south of Baltimore.

The tinder-dry conditions have contributed to a surge in brush fires, lower water levels at Baltimore's three main reservoirs, and decisions by some farmers not to plant winter grain crops this year.

Alan Zentz, state fire supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources, said there were 173 brush fires across the state in November -- five times the number recorded in November 1997. The fires burned 490 acres, but firefighters prevented any serious property damage or injury.

On Thanksgiving Day, state officials imposed a ban on open burning, and they have pleaded with residents to be careful with fire. A 6-acre fire at the Indian Springs Wildlife Management Area in Washington County on Saturday has been linked to smoking materials discarded by a deer hunter.

"We still need people to be extremely careful and pay attention to the burning ban," Zentz said.

The lack of rain in November, and continuing demand from consumers, lowered water levels in the city's Prettyboy Reservoir by more than 12 percent, from 87 percent of capacity on Oct. 30 to 76 percent yesterday, said Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the city Department of Public Works.

Liberty Reservoir has dropped from 73 percent of capacity to 68 percent in the past month.

Even so, Kocher said, "the water supply is even better than it was at this time last year, so there is no concern about the adequacy of the water supply."

For farmers, the dry autumn weather "is not the kind of thing that's going to produce a loud scream in the night," said Tony Evans, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture. But it has had an impact.

Some farmers have decided their fields are too dry to support the winter wheat, barley or rye they would normally plant as ground covers or for supplemental income, Evans said.

"Fruit growers and orchard people are very concerned," he said. They would like to get a good soaking rain in the ground to insulate their trees' root systems before it freezes. "It's hellacious to have dry ground and freeze."

The last bad winter in Baltimore was in 1995-1996, when snow at BWI totaled a record 62.5 inches. Normal seasonal snowfall there is 22 inches.

The following year produced just 12.7 inches of snow at BWI. Nearly half of that fell in a single storm on Feb. 8.

Last year -- an "El Nino" winter -- was one of the 10 warmest on record in Baltimore, and one of the wettest. Only 1.1 inches of snow was recorded at BWI, but a series of northeasters drove rainfall totals to more than twice normal in January and February.

Globally, things clearly seem to be warming up. The planet in 1998 is on track to eclipse 1997's ranking as "the Warmest Year of the Century."

The U.S. Commerce Department reported two weeks ago that global temperatures from January through October 1998 were the warmest for that period in 117 years of recordkeeping.

Pub Date: 12/01/98

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