It was supposed to be both winter's last blast and Baltimore's first significant snowfall in two years, but stubbornly warm air took the "snow" out of Wednesday's snow day for many Marylanders.
While weather forecasts had the region preparing for the worst — as much as a foot of heavy snow causing potentially hundreds of thousands of power outages — what it got was little more than a nasty day of slushy rain, though several inches of snow stuck north and west of the city.
Yet heavy winds toppled a tractor-trailer on the Bay Bridge, shutting the span down in both directions for about four hours. And three fisherman were reported missing in the Atlantic Ocean 15 miles east of Assateague Island amid howling winds and dangerous surf. A Coast Guard helicopter from Elizabeth City, N.C., rescued one from a raft, but the search continues for the others.
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Meteorologists expect the close brush with winter to cap what is likely a record two-year snow drought for Baltimore. Temperatures are forecast to approach 60 degrees in the coming days, making it a stretch for the season's snowfall tally to surpass 5 inches — a foot below normal.
The storm had lumbered through the upper Midwest, Chicago and the Ohio Valley in the previous days, dumping as much as 10 inches of snow in some areas. It was thought to have contributed to a few traffic deaths in Wisconsin and Illinois. By daybreak Wednesday, it had reached the Appalachians and dropped another 10 inches on Garrett County.
Weather forecasting models had shown signs that it would carry significant moisture on to Central Maryland, bringing as much as a foot of snow in areas to the northwest of Baltimore and nearly as much in the city. But the rain-snow line stayed farther west than forecasters expected, hovering over the Interstate 95 corridor as warm air blew in from the east.
"We were expecting the cold air from out west to move in and modify the air mass over Central Maryland and give you some accumulating snow in the afternoon and evening, but it appears it won't move in fast enough," Calvin Meadows, a meteorological technician at the National Weather Service's Baltimore/Washington office, said Wednesday afternoon.
Nearly three-quarters of an inch of precipitation fell at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, but the air was too warm for snow. Even if air temperatures are slightly above normal, a heavy enough snowfall can chill layers closest to the ground.
"If the temperatures would have been slightly cooler, the snowfall would have been pretty good," said Alan Reppert, a senior meteorologist with AccuWeather.com. "We were more expecting the snow to come down heavy enough that it would overcome the warmer temperatures."
While some criticized the busted forecast on Facebook and Twitter, meteorologists acknowledged their errors and defended the predictions coming from strong model indications.
"Mother Nature does not own a computer. She doesn't have to follow the models if she doesn't want to," said Keith Krichinsky, chief operating officer for meteorology site Foot's Forecast. "As much as we would like it to be, weather is not an exact science."
Factors including Tuesday's sunshine and the angle of sunshine atop storm clouds helped the weather diverge from models' forecasts, Krichinsky said. The Mid-Atlantic is one of the country's most difficult regions for weather forecasting because of complex interactions between mountains, the Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic Ocean and dynamic jet stream branches, he said.
In parts of Carroll, Baltimore and Howard counties, Wednesday's snowfall was among the heaviest of the season. Reports made to the National Weather Service included 4.5 inches in Westminster, 4.1 inches in Parkton, 3 inches in Garrison and 2 inches in Columbia. Carroll officials reported 7 inches in Manchester. But just a trace was measured at BWI, the point of record for Baltimore.
The heaviest snow nearby fell in Virginia's Blue Ridge mountains, which received as much as 2 feet. The Washington, D.C., region saw a range of snowfall similar to Baltimore's, with 0.2 inches at Reagan National Airport and 3-5 inches in the Northern Virginia suburbs.
It was the 17th day this winter a trace of snow was recorded at BWI airport; 4.8 inches of measurable snow has fallen there since December. In an average winter, 18-20 inches fall at BWI.
The last day more than 2 inches of snow fell at BWI was Jan. 26, 2011, when meteorologists measured 7.6 inches there.
Wind proved more treacherous than snow Wednesday in eastern Maryland. In the Bay Bridge accident, a westbound tractor-trailer was struck by a gust of wind about 2 p.m. and forced against the guardrail. The unidentified driver received minor injuries and was taken to Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis for treatment, officials said.
The fisherman rescued from the waters off of Assateague was taken to Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury. The Coast Guard deployed a 47-foot rescue boat from Station Chincoteague to continue the search for the others.
In the Baltimore area, the lack of wintry precipitation made for an awkward snow day for some. Heeding what appeared to be a serious snow forecast, school districts, office managers and even the federal government made decisions early Wednesday to close for the day.
All that distinguished downtown Towson from any other nasty afternoon was a lack of bustle and bodies. Many restaurants and businesses remained open as a windy, wintry mix blew through the area, but without much foot traffic, some businesses went to extra lengths to bring customers through the door.