A stormy finale to a winter of quirky weather

With the arrival of the monster snowstorm that has closed countless shops and schools along the entire Eastern Seaboard, this most peculiar of American winters took another unusual turn.

After years of mild winters - among the warmest in a century - the current season has hit America like an anvil. November and December were the coldest ever recorded nationwide, and an uncommon weather pattern has contributed to quirky forecasts from Miami to Mesa, Ariz.

Florida has experienced its worst drought in 200 years, endangering citrus crops and leading to wildfires. The Southwest has been so wet that wildflowers are blooming early in Arizona. And Des Moines, Iowa, had snow on the ground for 77 straight days - the second-longest streak there.

Now, the Northeast blizzard could herald a violent finale, meteorologists say, as data indicate March could be a stormy month.

"Some information suggests that there might be more storms on the way," says Paul Kocin of the Weather Channel. "It could make for a very memorable winter."

Before a flake fell, this week's storm had already scrambled nearly all of the East Coast. More than 10,000 plows and spreaders were mobilized regionwide. All public schools in major cities including New York and Boston were closed. New Jersey even went so far as to declare a preemptive state of emergency - 12 hours before the storm hit.

The scene inside local stores was equally frenetic. On Sunday morning, there was a line outside the door to get into Citarella, a market on the West Side of Manhattan.

It was just as bad in suburbia. In Westchester, Pa., Judy Simmons couldn't find any parking outside her neighborhood grocery store. Once she found a space, it took her 45 minutes to check out. "I found some friends and we just talked while we waited," she says. "It became a social hour."

Still, some people were undaunted by the dire forecasts. On Monday, a few hearty travelers in New York boarded a bus for LaGuardia Airport after they were told their flights were still scheduled.

"With the hotel rates what they are in New York, I can't afford to stay any longer," says John Richards, on his way to Omaha, Neb., via Pittsburgh. "I might not get out till Friday if I don't get out today."

Many schoolchildren were slightly more sanguine about the idea of being snowbound. Hadley Cameron, a freshman at Freedom High School in Bethlehem, Pa., was glad to get the time off. "I have a book report and a project about Braille," she says. "This gives me a chance to get caught up."

The storm itself was a unique convergence of two separate systems into what Mr. Kocin calls "the perfect snowstorm."

The heart of the storm is a typical nor'easter, which would usually swirl up the East Coast, hitting each area along the way for 12 to 24 hours of precipitation.

The second storm, however, is the key. Looping down from Greenland, across the Canadian Shield and the Great Lakes, and down to Virginia, it is expected to latch onto the nor'easter, stopping it in its tracks. Wherever the nor'easter stalls, snowfall could be huge.

Yet even yesterday afternoon, there was uncertainty as to where the storm would stall - hinting at the perils of forecasting major storms. Originally, forecasters had predicted that the brunt of the storm would hit the New York area - leading, at least in part, to New Jersey declaring its emergency. As the day progressed, though, the center of the storm moved farther north, confounding residents who were expecting to wake up to several inches of snow.

"The ability to communicate uncertainty without making it look like we don't know what we're talking about is very hard," says Kocin. "People want a number."

One thing that has been clear to meteorologists is the pattern that has led to unusual weather across the country this winter.

La Nina has played a role in keeping high-pressure systems far to the north. That has meant stormy weather over the nation's mid-section, and strong highs with no rain over sub-tropical regions like Florida, says Ed O'Lenic, a meteorologist at the Climate Prediction Center in Washington.

This winter, for example, Indiana, Missouri, and Arkansas experienced their second-coldest Decembers ever. Then in January, Texas, New Mexico, and much of the the American Great Plains saw more precipitation than normal.

To be sure, the national picture varies widely, but Kocin suggests, "It just seems to be a return to more-typical winters," with cold weather and big snowstorms.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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