DRY SPELL BLOSSOMS 'Shaping up to be a beautiful spring'

Posted: March 31, 2006

Andrew Frankenfield, an agriculture specialist, was planting sweet corn at a farm in northern Montgomery County when he noticed something missing: mud.

For the first March in memory, the region's farms, ball fields and backyards are virtually mud-free. That's because nature has withheld an essential ingredient: water. Barring a downpour before midnight right atop the rain gauge at Philadelphia International Airport, this will officially be the driest March since 1966.

The 0.91 inches measured since the beginning of the month is less than one-quarter of March's normal rainfall of 3.81 inches. It is even a half inch less than the average for Phoenix.

The air also has been amazingly dry. On several days this month, afternoon humidity actually dropped into the teens, lower than typical March readings in Las Vegas and Yuma, Ariz.

While droughts around here appear with a regularity that SEPTA could envy, no one is using the "D" word quite yet.

Still, the bone-dry conditions in New Jersey contributed to 511 minor fires that have charred 1,297 acres and prompted a statewide ban on open campfires. Pennsylvania has issued a fire "alert" warning but no statewide restrictions.

Nature's demand for water could become a concern. The region's trees are about to turn into six million pumps drawing moisture from the ground to feed voracious leaves.

For now, however, thanks to generous rains in the fall and early winter, the impacts of the March dryness have not been catastrophic - even for many tree-pollen sufferers.

"It's been a very odd season so far," said Donald J. Dvorin, Philadelphia's official pollen counter for the Chicago-based American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

The season got off to a roaring start earlier this month with counts immediately jumping to extreme levels, said Dvorin, also a specialist with the Asthma Center, which has six offices in the region.

At midmonth, the allergy business quieted as a cool spell caused tree buds to clam up.

Dvorin warned that if the weather warms substantially next week, the trees are going to have a reproductive orgy.

Provided you're not sneezing your brains out, the dry spell is perfect for outdoor projects.

"We don't want to be slogging around the mud," said Barry A. Bessler, chief of staff for Fairmount Park. There, the planting season has been particularly productive. The bright-pink Okami cherry blossoms on Kelly Drive are unfolding close to schedule.

"It's been quite good for the farmers," said Frankenfield, who works for Pennsylvania State University's agricultural extension in Montgomery County. They have been able to plant oats and alfalfa and haul manure without March mudness.

Frankenfield said he was chisel-plowing a field in Souderton last week after a hard overnight frost. Usually in March, the morning sun turns the soil to mush, melting the snaggletoothed ice puddles and releasing the water in the ground. Not this year. Plowing was a breeze.

"It's shaping up to be a beautiful spring," said Paul Meyer, director of the Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill.

The soil owes its health to the ample rains starting in October. On Feb. 11-12, a storm dumped 12 to 20 inches of snow on the region. Since then, less than an inch of rain has fallen.

March has been dominated by a strong and persistent blocking pattern in the upper atmosphere over the Canadian maritimes that repelled storms, said Anthony Gigi, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Mount Holly, N.J.

The long-range forecasts see no break in the dryness, which would have obvious impacts on water supplies as the weather turns warmer.

In the meantime, the short-term effects were evident to Gigi when he took his son to baseball practice in Mount Laurel.

"The boys were throwing clay into the sky to see the dust plumes in the lights," he said. "Usually this time of year we try to keep them from taking mud baths."

Contact Anthony R. Wood at 610-313-8210 or twood@phillynews.com.

ONLINE EXTRA

To see a spring slideshow, go to http://go.philly.com/flowers

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