Summer Chill - Sweaters Replace Suntans in Northeast

For Easterners, who endured a relentless string of snow storms last winter, summer was to be payback time. The check is still in the mail.

From Maine to Virginia and points west, the "summer" of 1996 has been cool and soggy - leaving some virtually whistling for the dog days of August.

"We want to see sunshine," says Joe Mahoney, a resident of Martha's Vineyard, the island playground of the rich and famous off Cape Cod.

To the south, New York has been chilling out, relatively speaking. For the first time in at least 120 years, temperatures in Central Park failed to reach 90 degrees in both June and July.

Nor has Boston seen a 90-degree day since May, although in June its average temperature was slightly higher than normal. As for July, "temperatures have been below normal even in Washington, D.C., although not as low as Philadelphia or Boston," says Richard Tinker, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service's prediction center in Maryland.

The region's spring-like summer stands in stark contrast to the rest of the country, where temperatures and rainfall are more seasonal.

The Southeast is sweltering. The monsoons have brought some temporary relief to a flint-dry Southwest, although four out of the five states in the region still face serious drought conditions. On the West Coast, the past month has seen above-average rainfall from Seattle to northern California, and near normal rainfall - which is to say, not much - in southern California and Nevada.

The wild West

"The West has such strong swings in seasonal weather cycles that you can have a 'wet' summer that will still be very dry," says Kelly Redmond, a climatologist at the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, Nev. "You'll always find something going on somewhere that will give you a perception" of unusual weather activity.

That perception is holding firm Down East. "The month of July hasn't been too great. It's not the kind of July we normally have for the state of Maine or New England," says Kenneth Cormier, who owns and operates Funtown Splashtown USA, a water and amusement park in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. He says business has fallen 20 percent over last year. Normally, the water park does well on hot days, while the amusement park draws visitors on cool ones. "This summer both parks are affected because of wet weather," he complains.

For that, Mr. Cormier can blame a weaker variation of the weather pattern that brought the region such a grim winter. Deep troughs of low pressure in the upper atmosphere are hovering over the Northeast, setting the stage for the stormy weather. These pressure patterns have also forced the jet stream farther south than usual, bringing cooler air from Canada.

Why do such features persist over a particular region? "We just don't know," says the NWS's Mr. Tinker. He adds that the weather pattern, plus the water added by the remnants of hurricane Bertha, has led to more flash-flood watches and warnings in the region as storms move through. With the ground already saturated from the spring thaw and run-off from frequent rains, the likelihood has grown that a downpour could generate local flooding.

A boon for some

Yet if the cool, wet weather hurts some businesses, it helps others. If the beach isn't available, the local book shop is. "When the sunglass store is having a bad day, we're having a good one," says Joe Schreiber, a bookseller at Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven on Martha's Vineyard.

The season has been good to Paul Richter, as well. The manager of Down East Whitewater in The Forks, Maine, says sections of river that last year were relatively tame have been lifting 15-foot "Grand Canyon" waves for his rafters. Last year, water levels were so low that the dams regulating the flow into the Penobscot and Kennebec rivers would release water only two hours a day. This year, they've been releasing water 24 hours a day. "We love it," says Mr. Richter. "It's been a real exciting year, although the camp kids get a bit scared."

Similarly, in New York's Adirondack State Park kayakers have been surfing rapids on rivers that are usually too low to navigate this time of year.

Even electric utilities are happy. Unusually high water levels along sections of the Connecticut River have kept hydroelectric plants humming. The cool weather has dampened demand, taking the pressure off of a grid in which five of New England's eight nuclear power plants are off-line and under scrutiny by federal regulators.

"The weather certainly has been unusual," says Tinker, adding, "It doesn't look like there's much of a break coming." The outlook for the region through Aug. 10? Temperatures closer to normal, but above-normal rainfall, he says.

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