Weather extremes occur more often

Kai Hagen

November 20, 2003

"Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get."

You may have heard this meteorological adage before. It seems especially apropos of the weather we've had in Frederick County the past few years.

In Maryland, we are blessed with a moderate climate. It's alternately described as gentle or mild or temperate or ... well ... moderate. The phrase "Land of Pleasant Living" may have been created as an ad for National Bohemian Beer, but the climate must be one of the reasons it stuck!

"Climate" is generally defined as "normal," or what we expect. What climatologists call normal is based on a 30-year average. But, as we've been frequently reminded of late, "normal" and "average" can be a bit misleading.

"Weather" is what happens in the atmosphere during a short period of time -- this morning, tonight, yesterday, today, tomorrow. Weather is what's happening outside your window now.

Understanding averages is useful. But averages won't tell you if it's a good day for golf or skiing. Averages won't guarantee a pleasant day for your family picnic next week or a wedding next month. And, even though climate is what determines what crops we plant around here and when we plant and harvest them, averages won't tell local farmers whether they should plant corn today or cut hay tomorrow.

For instance, sea level is an average. Predictable high tides and low tides are normal. Even without considering the weather, however, you can get soaked standing where it is dry, on average. Toss some real weather into the mix, and the reality of the seashore is anything but average. Weather has a way of turning ideal vacation spots into something other than a picture-perfect postcard experience with blue sky and gentle waves.

Weather is all about exceptions to the rule of climate.

And it seems like Frederick County weather has been more and more exceptional.

You'd have to be in a coma not to notice our weather has been remarkably odd recently. You could even call it freakish. Certainly, official reports have made good use of the word "unprecedented" to describe our wildly fluctuating and often record-setting weather.

It was almost a year ago that we had arctic cold and early snow, followed by a couple of ice storms, followed in turn by a rare white Christmas and more heavy rain and blowing snow. This year started with more "unseasonable" cold temperatures and record snowfall, along with an unprecedented number of snow days for kids and budget-busting work for county snow plows.

Then came the rains that never ended -- they haven't ended yet, anyway. Think back to all the weekend T-ball and soccer games that were canceled. Along with an "unprecedented stretch of grey days, there was flash flooding in spring, Hurricane Isabel leftovers in summer, and more flooding not long after that. Hurricane Isabel also brought serious winds, of course, but they seemed mild in comparison to the two days of constant, howling winds we had just a couple of weeks ago.

Some of us lived through as many as four major power outages the last 12 months.

With so much weather-related excitement this past year, it would be understandable if you forgot that one of the main topics of conversation the year before was heat and drought. The summer of 2002 was the high point of a major drought that started a year earlier. Newspapers were overflowing with articles about withering lawns and crops, near-empty reservoirs, forest fires, water restrictions, and tips on rain barrels and water conservation.

Seems like a lifetime ago.

Official sources informed us that the period from September 2001 through August of 2002 was Maryland's second-driest 12 months in the entire 108 years we've kept good records. Not enough to break the drought, perhaps, but there were a few serious storms here and there to break the monotony, including a couple of rare tornados and a severe thunderstorm that toppled the magnificent Wye Oak, reducing the living symbol of Maryland's state tree and the largest white oak in the country to so many fine-grained souvenirs.

What to make of all this?

While the debate is pretty much settled about the fact that we are altering our atmosphere, and with it the global climate ... and local weather ... there is plenty of uncertainty about the long-term effects. Nevertheless, one thing the various models have in common is an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events. The volatility of the weather outside our windows is consistent with the profile of a warming world.

We are connected to the world in more ways than one can imagine, none more complete than climate and weather. It may be hard to predict what comes next, but the odds are that, so far, we've only seen the tip of the iceberg.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at