S.C. having one wet winter

One of the wettest, coldest winters in South Carolina history is affecting everyone from the engineers who build roads to the folks who like to ride bikes away from the roads.

Two weeks into February, all areas of the state are within spitting distance of the record for their all-time wettest winter, and the December-February temperature statistics will rank among the top 10 coldest winters at many locations.

The weather has been frustrating for crews rushing to finish work on I-385, and it ruins the fun for mountain bikers worried about the long-term health of clay-based trails. On the flip side, the winter rains are pumping life into the state's only national park.

"It seems like it rains every Monday, it dries out (enough to do road grading work) by Thursday, then it rains again on Friday," said Nick Waites, resident construction engineer for the I-385 project in Laurens County. "We're not getting as much done as we had hoped, but we're still pretty much on schedule."

With hundreds of workers scurrying along the 15-mile section of interstate, the project got ahead of schedule in January when there were a couple of longer breaks between rains. But they can't do much of the grading and dirt work on rainy days, and they can't pour concrete on days when temperature isn't forecast to reach 40 degrees.

The I-385 contract includes strong incentives for finishing ahead of time, and Waites still expects to beat the August target date. "Hopefully, we won't get as much rain in March and April," he said.

Actually, the 90-day forecast from the federal Climate Prediction Center calls for slightly higher precipitation and slightly lower temperatures than normal. At this point, though, "slightly" sounds good.

Both the Upstate (14.24 inches) and the Lowcountry (16.52 inches) set records for the wettest December-January since record-keeping began at the current sites, in 1962 at the airport in Greer and 1938 at the airport in Charleston. The Midlands had the third wettest December-January (12.49 inches) since records began being kept at Columbia Metropolitan Airport in 1948.

The cold has been slightly less dramatic - December-January ranks as the 13th coldest in Columbia by average daily temperature. But those delightful, balmy winter afternoons have been rare this winter. In fact, the average daily high temperature in Columbia Dec. 1-Feb. 7 was 53 degrees, coldest for that period since 1978.

"This has been a textbook case for climatologists on what to expect with an El Nino," said state climatologist Hope Mizzell. "Storm tracks are dipping down farther south. And they're not just more frequent, but they're also tapping into more moisture."

The El Nino effect is born in warmer-than-normal ocean waters in the equatorial Pacific, which impacts global weather patterns.

The El Nino usually begins to have less effect on South Carolina's weather during late spring, when conditions offshore in the Atlantic have more impact on our rainfall. If that means less rain in the spring, it couldn't come too soon for mountain bikers.

"There are a lot of people who are going stir-crazy with this situation of the rain and the trails," said Bill Victor, one of the guiding forces behind the Fork Area Trail System in Edgefield County.

Mountain bike tires tear up trails that are too wet, especially clay trails that don't soak up water. The FATS trails are closed after heavy rains until they dry out. They haven't been open much this winter.

Victor has spent most of the winter weekends either riding gravel roads or doing repair work on trail systems. Local riders are trying to make sure FATS is in great shape because the International Mountain Bicycling Association is holding its annual summit in the Augusta area this spring.

"If I have a frustration, it is with those who don't care about their impacts on wet trails," Victor said. "It is not lost on me that 90 percent of the work we are doing now is because too many people rode on a day when it was too soft."

At Harbison State Forest in Columbia, the Lost Creek Trail has been closed most of the winter. Other trails remain open, though signs have been placed at entrances asking riders to stay off them after heavy rains.

"The trails are completely soaked and, thereby, in very fragile condition," said Steve Masone, chairman of the Friends of Harbison State Forest.

By contrast, the rangers at Congaree National Park are celebrating the flooding, even if it closes all of their trails except the raised boardwalk. Floodwaters in late January reached levels seen only five times since 2003, and then they hit those levels again last week.

"These flood events are precisely what makes Congaree National Park so unique in the National Park System," said Bill Hulslander, chief of resources and science at the park. "Most of our 26,000 acres of land are currently under water. These flood pulses support the park's diverse bottomland hardwood forests and champion trees by providing critical nutrients and sediments to the entire ecosystem."

Attendance is down slightly at the park compared to the past few winters. But you shouldn't let the cold, the rain or the floods keep you away. Everyone needs to get out more this time of year.

A study by USC researcher Shawn Youngstedt found a direct correlation between soaking up sunlight and having better moods. Many people get outside for less than an hour of daylight per day, and our bodies need much more than that.

"People up North know about this," Youngstedt said. "I wouldn't be surprised if people are feeling depressed."

Even with the shorter winter days, South Carolinians usually can get out at least on weekends to catch a little sunlight. But this winter most weekends have been either rainy or frigid.

Of course, El Nino can't hold off spring. Days are getting longer. Temperatures soon will rise.

"These extremes are normal," Mizzell said. "We have them periodically. We've just had a two-month extreme."

The rain might slack off soon. But nobody wants the spigot to be turned off like it was last time the state had an especially wet El Nino. That 1997 winter was followed by a 10-year drought.