Face it: 1987 was a meteorological dog in Washington -- blockbuster winter storms in January, 3/4-inch hail in June, miserable heat in July, drought in August, near record cold in October and, lest we forget, the paralyzing snow on Veterans' Day in November.
If you're a glutton for punishment, look at these statistics, courtesy of the National Weather Service:July was the hottest ever, averaging 82.6 degrees. The thermometer at National Airport hit 100 degrees twice and ran 95 degrees or higher for eight consecutive days, also a record. The average daily high for the month was 92 degrees. A tornado slammed into Manassas Airport on July 11, part of a severe thunderstorm system that also brought inch-wide hailstones and winds up to 62 mph to the area.
August was the driest since 1970, with only 2.07 inches of rain, less than half the normal of 4.40 inches. Gardens and farmlands were left parched, only to be washed out by a string of violent thunderstorms in September. More than two inches of rain were dumped on the area in a single storm Sept. 12, flooding city streets. The airport officially measured 5.11 inches for September, nearly double the norm, while southern Montgomery County endured more than 10 inches of rain.
January produced back-to-back winter storms with more than 20 inches of snow dumped on the city between Jan. 23 and Jan. 26. Temperatures nosedived to 7 degrees at National and a record 17 degrees below zero at Dulles International Airport on the 28th.
February was almost as bad with snow on the ground 13 of the month's 28 days. A storm on Feb. 22 and 23 dropped an additional 10.3 inches at National and up to 18 inches in the northern suburbs.
November's surprise snowstorm on Veterans' Day, which crippled bus transportation throughout much of the area, brought the year's total snowfall to a staggering 42 inches, the most since 1966 and one of the few times in the century that the annual accumulation surpassed 40 inches. The Veterans' Day storm caught forecasters off balance. They originally predicted only small accumulations of snow, but by early afternoon, nearly a foot had fallen on the city, tying up traffic, closing schools and spreading misery among man and beast.
April had 20 days of rain, drizzle or snow, making it one of the dreariest on record. October was the coldest since 1925, with daily temperatures averaging 54.4 degrees, almost five degrees below normal. June recorded a tornado in suburban Virginia on the 9th and 3/4-inch-wide hail on the 13th. On Nov. 7 and 8, smoke from forest fires in Kentucky and West Virginia drifted over the area, reducing visibility and making eyes smart.
Overall, there may have been a few good days in 1987 somewhere, say Weather Service forecasters, but they're hard to find.
We didn't do so well in '87," said forecaster Bob Oszajca yesterday. "We'll work on it in '88."
Look at it another way: When all the zigs and zags of 1987 are added up and divided by 365, the resulting picture is unexpectedly close to normal for the year as a whole. Unofficial totals from Weather Service data show the temperature averaged about 58.1 degrees in 1987, only 0.6 degree above normal. Precipitation -- rain, snow, hail, sleet -- totaled 36.63 inches through Dec. 30, just below the normal of 39 inches.
Annual average precipitation and temperatures have ranged widely in the 116 years since the Weather Service began keeping records here in 1871. The coldest years on record were 1875 and 1904, when the temperature averaged 52.2 degrees. The warmest year was 1980, with an average of 59.5 degrees.
Weather Service figures show a gradual warming trend since 1871. Climatologists say this may be part of what is thought to be a general warming trend throughout the world but probably is more acutely affected by local "heat island" conditions brought on by heat-retaining construction and other urban development over the years.
Annual precipitation totals have ranged even more widely, from a record low of 21.66 inches in 1930 to an all-time high of 61.33 inches in 1889.
Despite the less-than-normal precipitation for 1987, the Potomac River, Washington's principal source of drinking water, averaged above its normal flow rate for the year, fed by huge snows replenishing the water table adjacent to the river and by heavier rains in the Potomac watershed west of Washington in the summer.
Figures maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey show the average daily flow just upstream from Washington was 7.9 billion gallons a day, 34 percent above the longtime average of 5.9 billion gallons.
The highest single daily flow was 99.5 billion gallons on April 19, and the lowest 1.07 billion gallons on Aug. 5, according to survey figures.
Diversion of Potomac water for municipal use averaged 389 million gallons a day and was never endangered by the low flow levels of the river during the August dry spell, the survey said. In some periods of severe drought in past years, the flow has dropped below half a billion gallons a day and come perilously close to the amount drawn by the city through huge intake pipes at the Little Falls pumping station.