ANNAPOLIS – A deluge from Hurricane Floyd probably isn’t going to do it: Maryland needs a cold, wet winter to offset the drought’s effects, but meteorologists disagree about whether the coming months will deliver.
“We would like to see a lot of snow and cold weather so it melts slowly and recharges the aquifers,” said John Verrico of the Maryland Department of the Environment. The ground is so dry and hard that the recent rains have been unable to soak in, resulting in tremendous runoff, he said.
Rain from Hurricane Floyd is expected to be no exception – lots of water, lots of runoff. While some meteorologists predict the coming heavy rains will compensate for the drought, others say this type of intense rain really does not help.
The bottom line – forecasting weather is a tricky business, made even more so by Maryland’s geography.
“It’s more difficult to predict the mid-Atlantic area, because of the Appalachian Mountains to the West and the Atlantic Ocean to the East,” said meteorologist Anthony Artusa of National Centers for Environmental Predictions. Mountains tend to disrupt wind flow from the west while the ocean modifies weather – cooling down hot summers and turning snow into rain.
Maryland’s location between two big weather action centers also makes prognosticating troublesome. Maryland sits between the Great Lakes region, which is going to be cold and wet this winter, and the Southeast, which will be much drier and warmer than usual, said Anthony Barnston, of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction.
“You can never have a very confident forecast for Maryland,” Barnston said.
Judson Hale, editor of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, said he doubts this winter’s weather will make up for the drought. The almanac’s scientists estimate that 14 inches of rain will fall from November through March, one and a half inches less than average.
But other experts say that difference is insignificant.
“To be outside the normal range, it would have to be more than two inches below the average,” said Barnston. Barnston is in the drought-is-ended camp, citing the heavy rains from Hurricane Dennis last week.
Despite recent downpours, precipitation this year is below average. The region has received 34.2 inches of rain, substantially less than the 30-year average of 42.4 inches, according to the environmental prediction centers.
The showers are a mixed blessing for farmers, said Ray Garibay of the Maryland Department of Agriculture. While the rains have come just in time to aid farmers with the winter small grain crops such as wheat and rye, the subsoil is still dry. To ensure a good harvest next spring, winter crops will need steadier, less intense rainfall, he said.
Without regular rain, the winter grains could go the way of this year’s corn harvest, which is down by an estimated 22 percent.
“We are far from out of the woods,” he said.
Kenneth Pickering, acting Maryland climatologist, agreed that heavy downpours from Hurricane Floyd have the potential to make up for the dry summer, but the water would have to penetrate the soil to do any real good.
“Floyd is good for streams and reservoirs, but it’s not so good for groundwater restoration, because it doesn’t have a chance to soak in,” Pickering said.
Floyd is larger and more powerful than Hurricane Andrew, which wreaked havoc on Florida in 1992, causing $30 billion in damage and claiming 26 lives. Hurricanes are ranked on a scale from one to five, with Category 1 hurricanes having winds of 74 to 90 mph and Category 5 hurricanes having winds of greater than 155 mph. Hurricane Andrew was barely a Category 1 while Floyd is a Category 4 with winds of 140 mph, said Pickering.
Latest forecasts show Floyd may come ashore in South Carolina where meteorologists predict it will probably head straight north, dumping considerable rain on the Maryland area.