WASHINGTON – When September ended with no sign of significant rain, farmers, homeowners and meteorologists were left wondering when the sky would deliver sweet relief to their crops, lawns and weather forecasts.
And then October skies released rain showers and downpours that erased all traces of the driest September recorded. October now has a separate place in Maryland meteorological history as the wettest ever.
As of Oct. 26, 9.23 inches of rain fell at Baltimore/Washington International Airport, breaking the month’s previous record of 8.09 inches in 1976.
The drought ended after a steady rainfall that began on Oct. 7 lasted through the weekend. By Oct. 11 the National Drought Mitigation Center’s weekly drought map reflected the nearly 7 inches of rain the airport recorded; the moderate drought classification that was there a week earlier was gone.
“It was the perfect rainfall for breaking a drought,” said Jeff Stehr, an assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science.
The ground was beginning to get a hard-baked look, Stehr said. But the rain’s steadily increasing pace allowed the ground to slowly absorb the moisture.
“It’s almost as if you have to give it a little sip before you can get it to drink water,” he said.
An active tropical storm and hurricane season helped move Maryland from dry to wet in a few short weeks. The remnants of Tropical Storm Tammy earlier this month brought in the rains that broke the dry spell and the most recent storm, Hurricane Wilma, collided with a low-pressure system in the atmosphere that brought the most recent deluge.
“The combination of these two systems pulled us out of the drought,” said Steve Rogowski, a forecaster with the National Weather Service’s Sterling, Va., office.
Typically, September is wetter than October, Rogowski said.
“We kind of did a flip-flop.”
A mere .67 inches fell in September, beating out the previous dry record of .62 inches in 1977, according to the National Weather Service. Before the rain earlier this month, Maryland had not seen significant rain since late August.
Unpredictable weather is common around this time every year, Rogowski said. As colder air moves in from Canada, it meets warmer air from the South. Winter’s arrival will push that cold air farther south causing plunging temperatures and snow, freezing rain and sleet, Stehr said.
Cold air from Canada interacting with the warm air of a weakening Hurricane Wilma was responsible for rain and a powerful nor’easter that dropped snow in Maryland before causing a myriad of problems farther up the East Coast.
“When that storm system sucks up all the energy of a hurricane — holy cow,” Stehr said.
Some parts of Garrett County got up to a foot of snow, which may be daunting for more urban environments, but was not a major problem for an area that can see up to 3 feet of snow each winter.
“Up here we don’t even consider that a really good snowstorm,” said Brad Frantz, the county’s director of emergency management.
The county was ready for the early snowfall, Frantz said, but “the problem was that the leaves were still on (the trees) and that with the heavy snow . . . it just caused so many of the trees to come down,” he said.
The wet weather may have helped the trees keep their leaves longer than normal, said Joe Sullivan, a plant ecologist at the University of Maryland.
Although leaf fall varies each autumn, warm, dry weather tends to help them fall, Sullivan said.
The weather service’s Climate Prediction Center winter forecast is vague about winter’s expected precipitation. Released in October, the forecast said the chances the region would see below, above or normal precipitation is about the same.
November is usually a drier month, said Rogowski, averaging about 3.12 inches of precipitation since 1945.
If the increased activity of the Atlantic hurricane season is any indication, November could be a rainy month as well. This year’s record breaking tropical storm and hurricane season ends Nov. 30.