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Weather was weird in 1998

December 31, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

It was the wettest of years and it was the driest of years.

It was also the warmest. The average temperature of 56.9 degrees this year was a full degree higher than the previous record set in 1991, according to Hagerstown weather observer Greg Keefer's records.

"It's been a crazy, crazy year," said Keefer, who has been watching the weather since 1970.

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The year that ends today was a study in contrasting extremes.

It started off with a torrent of rain. Fueled by the effects of the dreaded El Nio weather phenomenon off the Pacific coast of South America, the Hagerstown area received a record 22.27 inches of precipitation during the first four months of the year, according to Keefer.

That's a record for the beginning of a year, nearly twice as much as normal. It put the area well ahead of the pace of 1996, which set a record for most precipitation in a year.

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In contrast, however, fewer than four inches of rain have fallen since September. That's also a record - for the driest end to a year. Normal precipitation for that period is 12.39 inches, according to local weather records.

"We go from one extreme to another," Keefer said. "Probably some day we'll have a record high and a record low all in the same day."

January and December 1998 might be polar opposites in terms of precipitation, but they share a common trait: warmth.

The temperature was 60 degrees or warmer for six straight days in January, matching a record set in 1967.

March 30, when the mercury hit 89 degrees, was the warmest March day ever recorded.

From Nov. 28 to Dec. 10, the temperature hit 60 degrees or more to set a record for the most consecutive days over 60 degrees during that period. On five of those days, Dec. 3 through Dec. 7, temperatures reached at least 70 degrees. That's also a record.

Since Nov. 23, the temperature has reached at least 60 degrees on 13 days.

Although such warm weather may inspire fears of global warming, weather experts cautioned against jumping to such sweeping conclusions based on one abnormal year.

"We would probably attribute that to El Nio. We wouldn't want to attribute it to anything more long term than that," said Dewey Walston, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The year began with a particularly strong El Nio event, a warming trend in the Pacific Ocean that has profound effects on weather all over the world. In the Northeast, El Nio typically causes a warm, wet winter, Walston said.

El Nio is generally followed by its cousin, La Nia, which causes a cooling of waters in the Pacific. Its effect on this region is usually a warm, dry summer and fall, Walston said.

The effects were more dramatic this year because the weather events were stronger than in past years, Walston said.

"It's very bizarre, but it's a prime example of the effects of El Nio and La Nia," he said. "You see the extremes."

As for global warming, many climatologists believe it may be happening. But Walston said they can't base their theories on 1998.

"It takes decades, if not centuries, for scientists to formulate that conclusion. We're talking about one year," he said. "Next year could be one of the 10 coldest ever. Who knows?"

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