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A winter without end

Daily Staff Report

If anyone should be able to time a getaway during what’s been a bizarrely balmy winter, you’d think it would be America’s weather forecasters.So how to explain the conditions confronted this week by members of the American Meteorological Society who packed short sleeves for their annual convention in normally mild San Antonio – icicles dripping from the rails, sleet falling from the skies, and biting chill in the air?It turns out the winter that wasn’t, isn’t done with us yet.Ever since December dawned, abnormally high temperatures across most of the nation have had both experts and ordinary folks basking in the delightful but vaguely unsettling notion that winter might be taking a holiday.Well, try telling that to ranchers in Colorado whose cattle, snowbound last month, had to be fed from the air.Or homeowners in Oklahoma who are still without electricity after an assault by ice, now blamed for 66 deaths in 9 states.Or citrus growers in southern California sullenly surveying the expensive damage to groves caught in a deep-freeze. And what to make of the folks in Los Angeles who raced outside Thursday morning to build snowmen and pelt each other with snowballs?What’s going on here?Actually, it’s called winter. The problem is it came when – and in some cases, where – most of us were least expecting it. Chances are, it’s not over.That may come as a surprise in a season that has been rife with talk of global warming and the weather-shaping effects of an El Nino.But the punishing weather some parts of the country have been seeing is a reminder that, though long-term changes in climate are likely taking place, they are incremental and are only overlaying the usual – and still highly unpredictable – weather. That means winter will have its day, meteorologists say.”As they say, climate is what you expect and weather is what you get,” said Michael Mann, a professor of meteorology at Penn State University. “So we’ve got to dress for the weather and we’ve got to expect that we can get everything over the full range of possibilities.”There’s no single explanation for what’s happening.Some of the winter weather, like the Colorado snowstorms, could be partly symptomatic of an overall rise in temperatures. It’s a well-known meteorological fact that warming the air means there is more moisture and that increases the potential for greater snowfall, Mann said.El Nino – an aberration in currents in the tropical Pacific – may also be partly responsible for the nation’s weather. Such patterns typically funnel warmer air to the northern part of the country while shifting colder air to the southern part, he said.But there’s also the possibility that many of us may have briefly forgotten how rough winter can be, meteorologists say.Consider that before cold gripped Omaha, Neb., last week, the city had enjoyed more than a month straight of abnormally warm weather – nearly 12 degrees above average, said Alan Reppert, meteorologist with forecaster AccuWeather.com.Mann says people are not really that different from the crocuses that began pushing their way up in his central Pennsylvania backyard last week, in response to the warm weather, only to be shocked by the freeze that hit this week.”I think we all get lulled into complacency that we have these spring-like conditions,” he said. “When things turn to seasonable conditions, we’re sort of a bit unprepared.”With its split-personality, the winter is picking unlikely economic winners and losers.Through December and the first part of January, mild temperatures boosted business overall, giving builders a chance to start work on more homes, increasing factory production and prompting consumers to get out and shop, said Mark Zandi, chief economist with Moody’s Economy.com.The cold snap will likely change that and among its first victims will be the citrus growers and the consumers who buy their fruit and fresh juice, he said. But if the cold continues, it will also hamper the business activities that were so robust just weeks ago.”I would expect that what has been a positive is now going to turn into a negative and the negative is going to feel … a little darker because we did enjoy a boost to the data in December and early January,” Zandi said.Maybe so, but in San Antonio – where temperatures this week have been half the normal average high of 62 – folks in the weather business are taking the sudden cold in stride, said Stephanie Kenitzer, a spokeswoman for the American Meteorological Society.As it happens, the group has a habit of picking usually warm places for its meetings, then running into bad weather. In San Diego two years ago, it was rain and mudslides. The last time they met in San Antonio, in 1982, it was ice.”Any time you put 2,500 meteorologists in one place, you know the weather is going to be bad,” she said.But who better to appreciate the extremes of weather, even if it is awful? As the ice began coming down Tuesday, Kenitzer ran into a broadcast meteorologist from Puerto Rico in the lobby.”Her face just kind of brightened,” Kenitzer recalled, “and she said, ‘I’ve never seen sleet before.'”And with that, the weather expert ran off to frolic in the cold.


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