- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2002

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) Virginia could be looking at a record-breaking drought this year, according to the state's chief climatologist.
"We have the specter of a drought of historical proportions showing up this summer," said Patrick J. Michaels, who heads the Virginia State Climatology Office based at the University of Virginia.
Mr. Michaels was worried enough to request a special meeting of the state's drought task force on March 8. This is the third consecutive year the Shenandoah agricultural area has faced early spring with dry conditions and the worst of the three, he said.
In 2000 and 2001, rain in late spring and early summer "prevented a major agricultural disaster," he said, but "there is no guarantee that this will happen again."
Drought index measures already place Northern Virginia in moderate drought and the Shenandoah Valley in a severe drought, but they don't show how grim the picture really is, Mr. Michaels said.
He said many farm ponds in the Shenandoah Valley are dry or close to it.
Stream flows, too, are below normal in every major basin in the state, and new record lows for December were posted at gauges in the York, James and Roanoke river basins.
Beyond the threat to agriculture, Mr. Michaels is worried about summer forest fires and possibly even a shortage of drinking water.
Mr. Michaels' office had cautioned against overreaction to rainfall deficits last fall, but the hope then was that a normal or near-normal winter would deliver needed rain. That rain has not arrived.
A strong and persistent high pressure system has been in place since the middle of October, preventing significant moisture from moving northeast over the mid-Atlantic region from the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, most cold fronts crossing the region have had little moisture in them and have brought little or no precipitation.
Statewide, rainfall for November, December and January is only 60 percent of normal, with 5.5 inches of rain rather than 9.2 inches, according to the Climatology Office.
The rainfall shortage comes when much of the nation is experiencing what may end up as the warmest winter on record, though Virginia is far from that mark.
"While this is going to be a very warm winter it could come in as the third-warmest in 100 years it won't hold a candle to 1931-32," Mr. Michaels said. That winter, December through February, averaged "a spectacular 46.1," Mr. Michaels said. That's 9.4 degrees above average.
The state's warmest winter came "on the heels of the 1930-31 drought," Mr. Michaels said. "The profound aridity allowed summer temperatures to skyrocket, and many of the all-time high temperature records in this region stem from July 1930."
The average temperature for the United States for November 2001 through January was 39.94, or 4.3 degrees above average, based on historical data back to 1895, according to the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.
In a related devopment yesterday, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, a Democrat, told residents to brace for possible water restrictions if the dry spell continues.

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