ANNAPOLIS – Maryland is wrapping up one of the warmest Januaries in a century, which gave highway crews a break and sent ski resort snow machines into overdrive.
The average temperature for the month was 41.4 degrees, nearly 9 degrees above normal, according to the National Weather Service.
And, despite dire predictions of El Nino driven snowstorms, only 0.7 inches of snow fell at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in the month, compared to 6.6 inches in a typical January.
So far this winter, only 1.1 inches of snow have fallen at BWI, compared to a normal 22 inches at this point in any other year, the weather service said.
It’s a continuation of a trend that began after the infamous winter of 1996, said Richard Hitchens, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service.
“The last two winters have been better than average if you’re not a snow freak or a ski resort owner,” he said.
But not all is lost for winter sports enthusiasts.
At the state’s only ski resort, Wisp in Garrett County, temperatures have been cold enough and there has been enough snowfall to keep the slopes covered, said Clay Carleton, sales manager for the resort. The weather service said Frostburg in nearby Allegany County got almost 20 inches of snow in January.
“We’ve survived very well,” Carleton said. “During the middle of January we got a little bit of rain, but by that time we were able to get a lot of man-made snow on the ground.”
The low snowfall has left the State Highway Administration’s coffers flush. A little more than halfway through the winter, only $6 million of the $20 million the state budgeted for snow removal and supplies have been spent, much of it in Western Maryland.
But Lara Hollenczer, a highway administration spokeswoman, cautions that a blizzard in February or March could put spending back on schedule.
Her fears of a late winter snowstorm are justified, according to Hitchens, who said that February is traditionally the state’s snowiest month.
It wasn’t expected to be this way.
Fear of blizzards prompted Gov. Parris Glendening in November to set up an El Nino monitoring group in a retired bomb bunker, and an El Nino hotline was established at the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.
El Nino, a weather phenomenon stemming from the warming of the central Pacific, was not expected to change the overall temperature or amount of snowfall in Maryland, but rather to enhance the chance of a major blizzard.
The state’s normal one-in-four chance of a snowstorm of 9 inches or more is supposedly raised to one-in-two with the El Nino effect.
“The one thing El Nino does is make things more unsettled,” Hitchens said.
If anything, El Nino has shown itself in the form of increased rainfall this month. BWI soaked up 5.65 inches of precipitation in January, compared to an average of 3.05 inches for the month.
While it might be responsible for the region’s higher precipitation levels, the wet stuff only translates into white stuff if combined with temperature-lowering Arctic air, Hitchens said.
Noting that “El Nino has no say in Arctic air,” Hitchens said that the region was only a few degrees of separation from a crippling blizzard when a nor’easter flooded streets earlier this week.
“If it had been colder we would have been under two feet of snow earlier this week,” he said.
Despite the absence of palpable effects, the state’s El Nino hotline has been busy, according to MEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney. He said the hotline has received 158 inquiries — mostly consisting of questions about El Nino, and of general winter safety questions.