All of a sudden, it's midsummer in Maryland.
Temperatures soared into the 90s yesterday in parts of the state. Ozone pollution drove air quality to "unhealthy" levels in part of the Interstate 95 corridor, and Baltimore opened its cooling shelters for sweltering residents under the city's first Code Red Heat Alert of the year.
The heat has air conditioning repair crews running all-out as many long-idled cooling systems balk. And, as beneficial rains continue to skirt the state, lawns dry up, and corn and soybeans struggle to get a start in the parched soil.
"It's getting to be a problem," said Lawrence Meeks, who farms close to 3,000 acres in northern Carroll County and southern Adams County, Pa. "Since the 27th of April, we've had four-tenths of an inch of rain here, and normally May is something like three or four inches."
You can blame the July-in-May weather on persistent summer-like high pressure over the eastern United States. "But it's not a true Bermuda high, because the humidity hasn't been off the charts," said Andy Woodcock, a forecaster for the National Weather Service's Sterling, Va., forecast office.
High temperatures should ease back into the 80s through the weekend, forecasters said. And thunderstorms could help moisten some lucky spots in their path.
But the best hope for widespread relief, Woodcock said, might lie in a rainy system now in the Gulf of Mexico.
"It looks like something is trying to come out of the Gulf for Monday," Woodcock said. But it's iffy. "One model says it will come right up to our area. Others say it goes off the coast, in which case we wouldn't get anything."
It's not a tropical storm system. But today does mark the start of what is forecast to be an active 2007 Atlantic Hurricane Season. Tropical storms and their remnants frequently provide relief for dry summer weather in Maryland.
Yesterday's high at BWI was 91 degrees, the third time since Saturday that the airport reached the 90s. The long-term average high for May 31 at BWI is just 79 degrees.
The forecast early yesterday prompted Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein to issue a Code Red Heat Alert. Ten cooling centers across the city were open at 9 a.m.
At least 32 residents took advantage of the centers' air conditioning, water and ice, according to Deputy Housing Commissioner Reggie Scriber. The centers will open as needed until the weather cools.
"It's day to day," he said. "All my people are on standby for the next week or two. We're ready to go."
Carroll County, too, opened six cooling centers yesterday for vulnerable residents without air conditioning.
Many Marylanders who have AC discovered that nothing happened when they switched it on. So they're calling for repairs.
"Pretty massive call volume. We're backed up two, three weeks," said Ryan Small, field supervisor for A.J. Michaels Heating and Air Conditioning. Some crews are working 14-hour days and answering emergencies on weekends.
Note for next spring: "A routine maintenance program with your equipment would be the best way to avoid emergency calls," he said.
Yesterday's heat and sunshine combined with hydrocarbon exhaust to increase ozone pollution.
Ozone levels reached "moderate" levels from the mountains to the Eastern Shore. Parts of eastern Baltimore and Harford counties experienced midafternoon conditions rated "unhealthy" for sensitive groups - active children and adults, and people with lung diseases such as asthma.
Some rain would help. May 2007 was the fourth-driest May on record for Baltimore, with just 0.94 inches of rain at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. The long-term average is 3.89 inches.
The region hasn't had a real soaking since April 15, when 2.52 inches fell at the airport. Isolated thunderstorms over the Memorial Day weekend delivered too much rain, too quickly in some locations, and nothing in others.
The "acute, short-term dryness" was enough to rank much of Maryland as "abnormally dry" on NOAA's latest Drought Monitor map, issued yesterday.
We're not yet experiencing the long-term drought entrenched across much of the Deep South. But stream flows across most of the state are running below the 25th percentile of their historical averages. And groundwater levels are falling.
Agriculture officials are watching the forecast closely.
"Right now, conditions are worsening every day," said Earl F. "Buddy" Hance, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "I don't think we're at a critical stage, but ... if we go without any rain for the next two to three weeks, then we are going to become very concerned."
The dry weather hasn't been all bad for crops, especially winter grains and hay.
"Barley and wheat, they're starting to get ready to harvest, so we want it dry for that," said Bryan R. Butler, county extension director for the Carroll County office of the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service. "We had a lot of grass, good alfalfa, great drying conditions."
Early vegetables, salad greens, tomatoes and berries have also fared well, since most are irrigated. The dry weather helps keep fungus and other diseases at bay.
A call for rain
But now farmers need some rain to get grass in the hay fields growing again toward a second cutting.
Corn and soybeans are just about all planted, too, and farmers are looking for rain to help get those young plants established.
The corn is "still very small, and is not being stressed horribly yet," Butler said. "But it's starting to get on the edge. There is some yield potential being lost each day the stuff doesn't grow to full potential for lack of moisture."
The driest conditions seem to be in Western Maryland, state officials said. On the fields that Lawrence Meeks works in Carroll and Adams counties, the lack of rain is apparent in the dusty soil.
"Any ground that's been worked is really dry, with no moisture in the top of the ground to make seeds germinate," he said. The scant water is keeping herbicides from working because they're not being absorbed by the parched plants.
"The hay crop is less than it ought to be," Meeks said. "The wheat and barley are short. It looks like there won't be a heavy straw crop, and I don't know how good the grain yields will be. I'm sure they are suffering."
Meeks worries he won't be able to plant a crop of green beans ordered by a New Jersey canner. To meet the client's production schedule, he'll need to plant within a couple of weeks. "If we don't have enough moisture in the ground, they'll tell us not to plant ... That's really serious."
"I would say maybe two weeks or so more of this and we're really going to begin to feel it," he said. "It's a good year to have crop insurance."