Freakish weather stumps meteorologists

Ocean breezes in Atlantic City near Albany Avenue drew visitors looking for an escape from Monday's heat. The high in Philadelphia of 89 was one degree shy of the record for the date. Meteorologists say a lack of spring showers contributes to the warmth.
Ocean breezes in Atlantic City near Albany Avenue drew visitors looking for an escape from Monday's heat. The high in Philadelphia of 89 was one degree shy of the record for the date. Meteorologists say a lack of spring showers contributes to the warmth. (BEN FOGLETTO / AP)
Posted: April 17, 2012

On a day when an amazingly warm spring almost outdid itself, some veteran weather observers wondered if the atmosphere was ignoring this season the way it snubbed winter - and whether the region was headed for deep trouble.

"No one has seen anything like this," Scott Guiser, horticulturalist at the Pennsylvania State University Agricultural Extension in Bucks County, said Monday, when the official Philadelphia temperature reached 89 - one degree shy of the record for the date.

It was the hottest day since Aug. 8. Based on records dating to 1873, this has been the warmest first 31/2 months of the year ever in Philadelphia, with an average temperature of 45.2, nudging past 1998 by about 0.7 degrees.

Guiser wasn't talking just about temperatures. Dryness has spread rapidly throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Meteorologists say that also has something to do with the heating: With no water to evaporate, the sun can devote more energy to heating the ground.

"We started irrigating before we should have," said Anthony Russo, an owner of Russo's Fruit & Vegetable Farm in Tabernacle, Burlington County.

Guiser said irrigation had been common this month - and uncommon in any other April. "That's really crazy," he said. "We haven't had any April showers."

For the month, rainfall through much of the region has been just about 10 to 20 percent of normal. Since Jan. 1, precipitation has been roughly half of the average.

Though groundwater and reservoir supplies remain reasonably healthy, the plant life is getting thirsty.

In the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic from West Virginia to Maine, more than two-thirds of the area is in some state of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Last year at the same time, that percentage was a mere 0.3.

Atmospheric patterns effectively have shut off the region from generous Gulf of Mexico moisture supplies, said Alex Sosnowski, a meteorologist with Accu-Weather Inc. That would explain the lack of April showers.

In Philadelphia, March was the fourth driest on record, and the second warmest, setting off an amazingly premature spring blossom show.

The azaleas opened way ahead of schedule at the Jenkins Arboretum in Chester County, said its executive director of 26 years, Harold Sweetman. And he doesn't see nature slowing down.

"By the time you get to Mother's Day, things even out," he said. But not this time. "This year is an exception."

Early-blooming plants could be flirting with trouble, Guiser said. Some of the area's farmlands remain frost-vulnerable for the next three weeks, and a quick cold spell might mean disaster for crops such as peaches.

Overall, he said, though, nature could have picked a worse time to turn off the faucets. The leafage still is far from peaking, and the area is still reaping the harvest of last year's record rains.

The region hasn't been in a state of prolonged drought in nine years, the longest droughtless stretch in records dating to 1980. However, Sosnowski said, this is how it starts.

"It takes a while for these things to develop," he said, "but then one thing leads to another, and the next thing you know, you have a drought situation."


Contact Anthony R. Wood at 610-761-8423 or twood@phillynews.com.

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