Is it a bit too warm for comfort? Just remember last winter

IF you're feeling hot this summer, remember North America's record-breaking 1980-81 winter. Much of the Eastern United States shivered through its fifth winter in a row with temperatures below the long-term average. It also was very dry. The January snow cover for North America was the sparsest since satellite monitoring began 15 years ago.

Statistics like these help put the weather in perspective on a hot summer day.

Last winter came close to, or actually broke, records for temperature or moisture both nationally and for almost half of the contiguous states. According to the National Climatic Center of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), last January was the fourth driest month in the 87 years of recorded national averages and the driest January since 1895. The 87- year average precipitation for the month (also averaged over the 48 contiguous states) is 2.21 inches. Last January's figure was a paltry 0.92 inches.

However, while Eastern states froze, the West was much warmer. Colorado had both its driest and second warmest winter. Arizona and California had their warmest winters on record, while normally frigid Wyoming enjoyed its second warmest winter.

General descriptions can be deceptive. Massachusetts, for example, had an unusually cold winter which set in early, in November and December, leading to the coldest January on record. Yet in February, the weather turned mild and produced an early spring.

All of which points up the basic fact of weather - namely, that it varies widely from seasonal expectations both year to year and from place to place. And it is the extremes for which one needs to be prepared. This latter point is emphasized when you recall that the hard winter followed an equally hard summer with record-breaking heat for many Southeastern and Eastern states, plus widespread drought.

NOAA's Environmental Data and Information Service estimates the 1980 heat and drought cost the US nearly $20 billion. Electric power for air conditioning, which averaged 5.5 percent above normal from late June through mid-August, accounted for $1.3 billion. Hundreds of miles of highways buckled. Crops and livestock suffered, as well as people. Water supplies were lowered in many areas; some have not yet adequately recovered.

Weather can seem benign on a pleasantly warm summer day whose greatest "threat" is the possibility of a refreshing shower. But the US is being put on notice that excessive development of marginal lands, as in the Sunbelt, or careless use of basic resources, such as water supply, make it increasingly vulnerable to weather extremes. It is past time to take this seriously in bot h local and national planning.

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