Mild weather makes Maryland pleasant

Kai Hagen

December 27, 2002

A couple of weeks ago, Frederick County and much of Maryland was hit hard by a winter storm — an "ice storm."

I’m not sure when meteorologists and the media began referring to freezing rain as ice storms. It is certainly more dramatic. And, perhaps, it’s a term befitting the destruction that can result from the cumulative effect.

Nevertheless, I’ve had a hard time using the term ice storm to describe something that usually rolls through as a soft rain or drizzle.

Freezing rain, or ice storms, if you prefer, can be visually stunning. No doubt about it. But they are also the most destructive form of winter weather we experience in Maryland.

Ice storms have crippled communities, causing power blackouts, disrupting telephone service, knocking down trees and limbs and utility lines, making streets and sidewalks unsafe, and even threatening roofs with heavy ice loading.

And we can pretty much count on having our share of them around here in the mild Middle Atlantic states.

The name says it all. The middle. In between.

States to our north have real winters, where kids play hockey outside, people go ice fishing and average temperatures can be life-threatening. States to our south are called the Sunbelt, for a reason. Maryland, Virginia and Delaware are where northern folks stop for gas on their way south for winter vacations.

Every so often, warm wet air from our southern neighbors overrides heavier, denser cold air sliding down from the north, creating just the right conditions for freezing rain. When that happens, we experience our relatively mild version of a natural disaster.

It is inconvenient to lose power, of course, and driving on ice is dangerous. But our natural disasters seem mild compared to what others experience.

In addition to ice storms, our natural disasters are generally limited to lightning and local flooding, periodic drought and a rare tornado. Even then, it is hard to complain.

If we didn’t build in floodplains, the worst effect of flooding would be wet basements. And, even though our droughts can be rough on farmers, we know it is a big deal when we can’t wash our cars or water our lawns.

What natural events affect us here are truly the exceptions that prove the rule. We live in a place remarkably free of serious and life-threatening natural disasters.

We can count our blessings that we only experience the most severe weather and worst natural disasters on television. News reports or Discovery Channel documentaries about our "raging planet," bring us incredible stories and unforgettable images of nature on a rampage.

Every now and then, we get a snow heavy and deep enough to bring things to a standstill for a day or two. It’s only a small taste of what blizzards and snow can do in the northern plains, or in high mountains where an avalanche can strike suddenly, as happens in the Alps, where dozens of people are killed every year by what the Swiss call "white death."

We are a long way from any volcanoes, but people live in their shadows around the world. Every so often the risk is made all too real, such as the tragic night in 1985 when the Nevado Del Ruiz mudflow in Colombia killed 25,000 people in one small city.

Flooding can happen almost anywhere, but it is almost too much to believe when we hear about floods in China or Bangladesh or other places that take thousands, even tens of thousands of lives.

Not many places on the planet have a much lower risk of earthquakes than Maryland, but we see the deadly destruction they cause in California, Japan, Turkey and many other places where it is not a matter of if they will occur, but when.

The list goes on and on, of course. Terrible tornadoes in the Midwest. Huge hurricanes striking Central America or our southern states. Ferocious firestorms out west and in Australia. Brutal heat waves. Tidal waves.

But not here.

I think that must be one of the reasons Maryland is known as "The Land of Pleasant Living."

Like people everywhere, we complain about the weather. If nothing else, it is always something to talk about. This holiday season, I am counting my meteorological blessings, glad to live in a gentle landscape with four distinct seasons, and where my biggest weather worry is if we’re going to have a white Christmas.

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