No Flakes: How Close Is Baltimore to a Record-Low Snowfall?

When the meteorological winter ends next week, Baltimore’s snowfall tally is expected to remain at less than an inch – tying the region for its least snowy season on record.

A largely tranquil weather pattern and simple luck of the draw have created what meteorologists jokingly referred to as a “snow hole” over Maryland.

The Baltimore region hasn’t seen such a snow drought since 1950. This season Baltimore has seen less wintry precipitation than areas from North Carolina and Virginia to Oklahoma and northern Texas.

It has been a snowier winter in parts of the Sahara Desert.

With unusually mild weather forecast to continue this week and into early March, chances for more snow are waning. Temperatures have surpassed 70 degrees four times already this month, and could again on Thursday and Friday.

But that doesn’t mean Baltimore is certain to match the nearly 70-year old record. It depends on whether a string of four straight snowy months of March here continues, or is snapped.

“Our window is closing really quickly,” said Dan Hofmann, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Baltimore/Washington forecast office. “We’re going to end up with one of the least snowy winters unless something significant happens over the next couple of weeks here.”

The recipe has been a combination of both dry conditions and near-record warmth.

February is likely to end as one of Baltimore’s warmest on record. Temperatures at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport are averaging more than 6 degrees above normal this month, and highs are expected to remain in the 50s, 60s and even 70s through the end of the month.

Meteorological winter, which runs Dec. 1 through Feb. 28, is likely to average 40 degrees or milder, warmth only seen four other times since the winter of 1949-1950. That season also set the mark for Baltimore’s most extreme snow drought. At this point in the year, only half an inch of snow had fallen, followed by 0.2 inches in a relatively rare March snowfall.

This season’s snow tally stands at 0.7 inches at BWI, the region’s point of record. That compares to snowfall of between 6 inches and a foot across southeastern Pennsylvania, the Delmarva peninsula and the southern half of Virginia.

“I’m not sure there’s a really good explanation for it,” said Tom Kines, a senior meteorologist with AccuWeather.com. “It may just be the luck of the draw.”

A storm in early January brought snow across the southern mid-Atlantic, tracking just south enough to miss Central Maryland. It was one of a handful of missed opportunities for snow lovers in the region, Kines said.

He meanwhile called the warmth “incredible.” The jet stream, a streak of fast-moving air 20,000 feet high that steers weather systems and divides polar and tropical air masses, has been stuck north of the region. That means a persistent flow of mild air from the southwest.

It’s a common setup under La Niña, a climate pattern that developed over the summer and is the opposite of the more well-known El Niño, Hofmann said. While El Niño is associated with most of the region’s biggest snowfalls, including the record 29.2-inch storm that hit last January, La Niña commonly brings mild winters to Maryland.

It is a departure from recent winters during which frigid Arctic air repeatedly dipped southward, chilling most of the eastern United States.

Instead, the Arctic and western Canada are unusually warm this winter, so when colder air does blow in from the northwest, it’s not as frigid as usual, meteorologists said.

Abnormally cold air has meanwhile intruded into western Europe, where dozens of people have died of hypothermia this winter.

The chill has even dipped into northern Africa. An Algerian town at the edge of the Sahara Desert got what was thought to be its first dusting of snow in nearly 40 years in December, and a heavier snowfall fell last month.

The warmth in Maryland is more of the norm than the exception, globally. January averaged more than 1.5 degrees above its 20th-century norm around the world, third-warmest on record, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.

While mild weather is forecast to persist here into early March, forecasters predict a pattern flip to colder-than-normal weather by the middle of the month. But by then, average highs are in the lower 50s and lows are typically a few degrees below freezing.

Average March snowfall at BWI is about 2 inches, and at least that much has fallen for four years running. But the three years before that each saw only a trace of snow.

Given the hint of a chilly trend, there’s potential for more snowfall, said Bryan Jackson, another weather service meteorologist.

But the chances dwindle the closer spring gets.

“We rarely have snow around normal, which is around 20 inches — it’s usually above or below,” Jackson said. “So far this winter, it’s shaping up to be much below.”

Marty Sharrow, who has taught classes on Maryland weather as an adjunct instructor at the Community College of Baltimore County and Notre Dame of Maryland University, said many of his friends “have thrown in the towel on winter.”

But he reminds them of snowfalls like the Palm Sunday Storm of late March 1942, which dropped a surprise 22 inches despite temperatures hovering just above freezing, he said.

“I don’t want to say winter’s over,” he said. “I wouldn’t bet a lot of money saying were going to have a lot of snow, but it takes just a couple conditions in the atmosphere to change.”

sdance@baltsun.com

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