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Abrupt shifts make for eventful winter

March 20, 1999|By JULIE E. GREENE

Mother Nature couldn't make up her mind this winter.

It was warm, then cold, then warm again before she abruptly shifted gears again with a surprise snowfall of 6 inches on March 4.

"It was like an interrupted winter season," said Bill O'Toole, weather prognosticator for the Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack.

The Hagerstown area saw 32.1 inches of snow this winter season compared with 13.3 inches last winter, according to local weather observer Greg Keefer.

O'Toole had forecast 38 inches of snow between Nov. 10, 1998, and March 16, 1999.

He may have been right for the Emmitsburg, Md., area, where O'Toole is based, which has received between 35 and 40 inches of snow so far this season, he said. O'Toole hadn't totaled his monthly reports as of Friday.

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O'Toole said he's not convinced the area has seen the last of winter weather this season even though spring begins officially at 8:46 p.m. today.

The jet stream is conducive to a little more snow, what is sometimes called a robin or onion snow because it occurs when the robins have returned and the onions have begun to bloom, he said.

Washington County public schools had six snow days that point out winter's fluctuations.

They were on Jan. 8, 14 and 15, and March 4, 10 and 15. The snow extended the school year, which was to end June 9, to June 17, said spokeswoman Donna Messina.

The winter was not what one would have expected from La Nina, O'Toole said.

La Nina, the opposite of El Nino, calls for cooler-than-normal water in the eastern Pacific off the coast of South America, he said.

In a normal La Nina year, fewer but bigger storms are expected as well as lower-than-normal temperatures for at least one-third of winter, O'Toole said.

The season was full of extremes.

It began with six record-high temperatures in December and overall was tied for the sixth-warmest winter along with the winter of 1956-57 with an average temperature of 36.6 degrees, according to Keefer. Keefer's weather records go back to 1898.

Three records for warm streaks were broken in December.

Between Nov. 28 and Dec. 7 there were 10 days in a row of temperatures of 60 degrees or higher, setting a record for that time of year, Keefer said.

Those seven days of 60 degrees or higher in December break the old record of five in a row in 1982, he said.

The record for the most consecutive days of 70 degrees or higher in December also was broken from Dec. 3-7. The old record was two days set in 1982 and 1984.

Then it got cold shortly before Christmas, lasting until mid-January, O'Toole said. The mild winter lasted until mid-February when temperatures started diving.

Friday, Feb. 12, was its own weather phenomenon with the day starting out with a record high 72 degrees. The day ended with sleet, snow, wind gusts up to 35 mph and a temperature of 33 degrees.

The area saw three ice storms in January, the most severe of which was on Jan. 2-3, Keefer said.

Then 12.4 inches of snow fell on March 14. That was the area's sixth-biggest March storm, according to Keefer's records.

The biggest March storm was the Palm Sunday storm of 1942 when the area was hit with 23 inches of heavy, wet snow over March 29-30, Keefer said. Three to four feet of snow was reported in higher elevations.

That storm downed power lines and collapsed roofs, he said.

March was very strong for the Whitetail Ski Resort this year, said spokeswoman Rachel Nichols.

Overall, the ski season was better than last year's, but still not up to the resort's projections, Nichols said. The resort projected 200,000 skiers for the season, but wouldn't release its actual number.

Nichols said 98 percent of the snow slopes this season were manmade.

Natural snow helps get people in the mood to ski, but this winter it was tough to get people to buy winter coats, let alone take out ski equipment, she said.

Winter wasn't that kind to local government budgets, either.

The City of Hagerstown's $173,123 snow removal budget was wiped out before the season was half over and Washington County's $320,255 snow removal budget also was broken, officials said.

"I'm going to be over budget, but I'm not sure by how much," said Ted Wolford, director of the county Roads Department.

"In a way it wasn't a bad winter, but in another it was," Wolford said.

While there wasn't a huge blizzard, the first three storms were ice and sleet, requiring road crews to cover almost every foot of road with chemicals, Wolford said.

Manpower accounted for the bulk of the costs in the later storms, especially the one that dumped 12.4 inches on Sunday, March 14, city and county officials said.

Of the $39,000 it cost the city to clean up that storm, $26,000 was for manpower, said City Finance Director Al Martin.

City crews started clearing roads at 10 a.m. Sunday and worked through the night into Monday morning, said Public Works Manager Doug Stull.

So far the city has $302,939 in snow removal costs, but not all of the bills are in, Stull said.

"I don't think we're out of the woods. This is the kind of year when we could get anything," Stull said.

The latest the Hagerstown area has ever seen snow was 3.5 inches on April 28, 1928, Keefer said.

In 1918 a four-day blizzard hit in April, leaving behind 19 inches of snow, he said.

"Weird things can happen and it has in the past and it will in the future," Keefer said.

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