June 11, 2006

New England Ponders a Year of Erratic Weather

By Jason Szep

LINCOLN, New Hampshire -- After record rainfall in May and June, a spring-like winter in January and the worst autumn foliage in memory, New Englanders are asking what's happening to their weather.

"Mother Nature must be getting back at us," said Jennifer Lahar, 28, a shop owner in Lincoln, New Hampshire, where the rain was six times heavier than average in the first 10 days of June.

That followed the soggiest May on record in southern New Hampshire and the wettest May-June period in Boston, with more than 18 inches of rain. If that were snow, Boston would have been blanketed with 180 inches.

New England, known for its blazing autumn foliage, picturesque ski mountains, spring maple sugaring and hot summers, boasts some of the world's most varied weather -- from droughts to ice storms, blizzards, hurricanes and heat waves.

But even by New England standards, the last three seasons seemed extreme.

On February 12, Boston dug itself out of its largest snowfall for a single day when 17.5 inches fell -- an abrupt change from the second-warmest January on record in much of New England.

Rhode Island's January was the warmest in 56 years. In Maine, lakes froze later, then thawed, faster than many could remember.

The mild temperatures confused maple trees in Vermont, where sap used to make syrup flowed early. The start of ski season was also delayed.

The usual frost that snaps green pigment, or chlorophyll, from the leaves in autumn to turn forests into a mosaic of color arrived a month late in some areas. The foliage, which typically explodes in brilliant red, yellow and orange, was a faint shadow of itself -- as was the number of tourists who flocked to New England for "leaf-peeping."

"It really has been a series of unusual events," said David Brown, New Hampshire's state climatologist.

"Maybe what we have been seeing is totally natural," he said. "But maybe there is something else going on in terms of regional climate change and global climate change. That's really the unanswered question we need to focus on."


In weather terms, New England is America's "tail pipe," residing downwind from most of the country. Westerly and northeasterly winds bring weather and air pollutants from other regions and much of Canada and push them over New England.

Brown said that could be affecting the region's weather.

A federally funded study, the New England Regional Assessment of 2001, gave one possible glimpse into the future.

It predicted that a typical day in Boston could feel like present-day Richmond, Virginia, in 100 years under one computer model of the earth's atmosphere and oceans.

That so-called Hadley Model sees a 6-degree Fahrenheit (3.3-degree Celsius) rise in temperatures and a 30 percent gain in precipitation over 100 years. A second model that predicts a 10-degree Fahrenheit (5.6-degrees Celsius) rise in temperature would make Boston resemble Atlanta, Georgia, the report said.

In a speech earlier this month, Wendy Baker, president of the U.S. syndicate of insurer Lloyd's of London, said New England's six states are poorly exposed to the growing risk of floods, which caused $10 million to $20 million in damage in northeastern Massachusetts in May and prompted Republican Gov. Mitt Romney to request federal aid.

Since October 1996, five federal disasters have been declared in Massachusetts on account of flooding, Baker said. Yet less than 1 percent of Massachusetts' property owners have flood coverage, she said.

After three consecutive weekends of rain, the sun emerged on Sunday, and Ethel Weiss, the 91-year-old owner of Irving's Toy and Card Shop in Brookline, Massachusetts, predicted customers would soon return. "It does hurt business though."