Winds, rain, snow, heat, cold and sunshine alternately stroked and battered the Washington area in 1979, smashing a half dozen meteorological records and disrupting life on several occasions. But in the end, the local landscape was left at its healthiest in years.
Abundant rain filled the Potomac River. Melting snow replenished the water table. Steady winds and above average cloudiness kept air pollution down. Mild temperatures confined Washington's muggy summertime agony to six weeks in July and flower-growing warmth right up to the end of November.
National Weather Service forecasters are quick to say that none of this suggests some fundamental climatic shift is about to occur. the events of 1979, no matter how welcome, were mere blips on the meteorological graph, insignificant episodes in the long run of history.
Besides, it wasn't all joy in 1979.
A near-blizzard -- the worst snow-storm in half a century -- struck in mid-February, and in September, Tropical Storm David slammed into the area, killing two persons, cutting off power to 85,000 households and toppling hundreds of trees with tornado-like winds.
The February storm left the area buried under two feet of snow, isolated entire communities and disrupted public transportation for days. The month as a whole turned out to be the coldest February since 1934 with an averager temperature of 28.4 degrees -- almost 10 degrees below normal. wOn 11 days, including the week of Feb. 9 to 15, the temperature never rose above freezing.
A total of 30.6 inches of snow fell during February. This, combined with another four inches in January, made the winter the snowiest since 1966.
Then in the spring and summer months, the weekends were bedeviled by rains and cloudy skies, putting a crimp in picnics, boat trips and other outings. Rain fell on 20 of the 27 weekends between March 21 and Sept. 22, according to National Weather Service forecaster Bill Miller, and only eight of the 54 weekend days in that period were classified as "clear." All the others were cloudy or partly cloudy.
Record high temperatures were set or tied on six days of the year and record low temperatures were tied on two days. In addition, the first 90-degree reading of the year did not occur until July 12 -- the latest date in any year since the National Weather Service began keeping records here in 1871. Ninety-degree weather ordinarily occurs in May and June and occasionally in April.
The highest temperature of the year --97 degrees -- occurred on Aug. 10 at National Airport, the weather service's official measuring station. The coldest reading -- 6 degrees -- was recorded on Feb. 10 and again on Feb. 18. c
Just to confuse things, a freak early autumn snow occurred on Oct. 10 -- the earliest recorded since a similar snow flurry on Oct 5, 1892 -- only to be followed by record-breaking warm weather in November.
Record high readings of 75 and 74 degrees were set on Nov. 23 and 26, respectively, and the temperature hit 70 degrees or higher on nine consecutive days from Nov. 18 to 26 -- another record.
As a whole, November averaged 54.4 degrees, matching the highest recorded average for the month, set in 1975.
The extremes of heat and cold throughout the year, however, tended to balance each other out. Thus the average temperature for the whole year turned out to be 58.0 degrees only .7 degrees above the normal annual average of 57.3 degrees according to unofficial calculations. The average annual temperature in 1978 was 58.1 degrees, almost the same as in 1979.
Precipitation throughout 1979 also fluctuated widely, ranging from almost seven inches in both January and September to less than one inch in December. But the total for the year -- 47.31 inches -- was far above the normal accumulation of 38.89 inches and was the greatest amount since 1975 when 50.50 inches fell.
Generous rains and melting snow filled the Potomac River to the brim. The U.S. Geological Survey reported that the river's 1979 flowe rate -- an average of 13.5 billion gallons per day at Little Falls -- was almost double the normal rate and was the second highest annual rate on record.
"Not a single month was below normal in streamflow," said Geological Survey hydrologist Myron Lys. Daily flow fluctuated between a high of 130 billion gallons on Feb. 27 and 2.4 billion gallons on Aug. 11 -- all well above the 300 to 400 million gallons withdrawn from the river each day for public consumption in the District of Columbia, suburban Maryland and parts of Virginia.
Lys also noted that groundwater levels remained above normal levels throughout 1979 because of the rain and snow. At the end of the year, groundwater levels monitored at a key local observation well were at about 10.7 below the land surface -- about 1.8 feet above the long-term average for this time of year.
Lys said the entire decade of the 1970s was the "wettest" decade on record in terms of streamflow and contrasted sharply with the 1960s when several period of severe drought occurred threatening municipal water supplies. s
He said there is "no particular significance to this shift in the hydrologic pendulum in terms of the future. It does, however, provide a reminder that such sharp fluctuations are part of the natural cycle and must be anticipated in plans for the future."
Officials at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which is responsible for monitoring air polution, reported that the summer of 1979 was relatively smog-free -- apparently because clouds frequently prevented the sun from interacting with pollutants and because of the timely arrival of Winds to flush out accumulated filth.
"It was a very, very good summer," said COG's Jim Alexander. Under new, somewhat relaxed federal standards, no health advisories or alerts were issued, although "a couple probably would have been issued under the old (stricter) standards, Alexander said.
This table shows the average temperatures for each month in 1979 compared with the 30-year norms for each month in Washington. Average monthly temperature is computed by totaling the daily maximum and minimum temperatures of the months and dividing the sum by double the number of days in the month. (TABLE) MONTH(COLUMN)1979(COLUMN)NORMAL Jan.(COLUMN)35.1degrees(COLUMN)35.6degrees Feb.(COLUMN)28.4(COLUMN)37.3 Mar.(COLUMN)51.5(COLUMN)45.1 Apr.(COLUMN)56.0(COLUMN)56.4 May(COLUMN)67.7(COLUMN)66.2 June(COLUMN)72.4(COLUMN)74.6 July(COLUMN)78.6(COLUMN)78.7 Aug.(COLUMN)78.5(COLUMN)77.1 Sept.(COLUMN)71.5(COLUMN)70.6 Oct.(COLUMN)58.5(COLUMN)59.8 Nov.(COLUMN)54.4(COLUMN)48.0 Dec.(COLUMN)43.7(COLUMN)37.4 Annual Average(COLUMN)58.0(COLUMN)57.3(END TABLE) CAPTION:
Picture 1, Two feet of snow crippled the metro area in February 1979. By Tom Allen -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, Tropical storm David inflicted heavy damage last September. By Larry Morris -- The Washington Post; Graph, 1979 Water Supply Potomac River, Washington, D.C., U.S. Geological Survey