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There is no suspense when the U.S. government’s meteorologists issue the winter forecast in October for those who already know whether the equatorial Pacific Ocean is currently nurturing the “little boy” or the “little girl.”
But, regardless of what this winter forecast foretells, there is always suspense about what the winter will actually bring to Southwest and Southside Virginia.
The “little boy” and “little girl” refer to the Spanish words “El Niño” and “La Niña, “which denote naturally varying phases of relative warmth or cold, respectively, for a stripe of sea surface stretching from the coast of Peru westward deep into the central Pacific.
El Niño, the “little boy,” was named as early as the 16th century for the Christ child, as it was often observed near Christmas. Its cool-water opposite was named La Niña, or the “little girl,” in the 1980s. These phenomena, collectively called the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) by modern scientists, have been linked through observation and research to weather patterns around the world.
The waters of the equatorial Pacific are currently in the cool phase, or La Niña, for the third year in a row. So, just as they did the last two years, federal forecasters applied the La Niña template for the winter forecast.
The Climate Prediction Center winter forecast depicts higher than normal probabilities of warmer than normal temperatures along the southern and eastern rim of the nation – including Virginia. Also, it shows higher than normal probabilities of drier than normal conditions in much of the southern half of the nation, edging into Southside Virginia but leaving most of Southwest Virginia in the “equal chances” it-could-go-either-way category.
This deference to the La Niña template is at once understandable and disappointing.
It is understandable in that these are indeed the averages from a large quantity of data over at least the past seven decades, interpreted by some of the best atmospheric scientists on Earth. More locally, Southwest and Southside Virginia averages for La Niña winters do indeed skew toward milder, a little drier, and less snowy.
It is disappointing in that not every individual La Niña winter is the same, with wide variations between extremes, and the annual winter forecast from the Climate Prediction Center issued to the public never seems to make much effort to analyze factors other than ENSO that could affect the particular upcoming winter.
The 1995-96 winter, that brought 4 to 7 feet of snow for the season across much of our region with three major winter storms, was a La Niña winter. But so was 1975-76, which was virtually snowless until early March, the only real dud winter of the 1960s and ’70s.
A further frustrating quality of winter forecasts in general, from many sources, is that winter is almost never a single-act play.
Almost no winters have one general weather pattern that lasts from December to February. A mild winter has cold spells; a cold winter has warm spells. Playing the averages misses those ups and downs, which often define the narrative of the season.
Last winter was a prime example. Looking at it on the whole, it was a warm, dry winter across much of Cardinal News territory, emblematic of fairly typical La Niña winter. At Danville, for instance, it was the 16th warmest and 19th driest winter on record since 1917.
But yet, right smack in the middle of it, there was a notably cold stretch lasting about four weeks, with a couple of widespread winter storms.
Many of you may remember the sudden switch flip from warm to cold on Jan. 3 that brought half-dollar-sized plops of snow with thunder – Sen. Tim Kaine and hundreds of others remember it for stalling traffic overnight on I-95. There was also the Jan. 16 snow-to-sleet episode (and freezing rain in Southside) that left a 3- to 9-inch shellac across our region.
Roanoke had continuous sleet-infused snow cover for 11 days in mid to late January, the first time in seven years and only the sixth time since the 1980s there had been 10 or more white-ground days in a row. Yet, the winter as a whole was the 12th warmest on record going back 110 years.
Blacksburg had eight days with single-digit low temperatures last January, the 11th most such days in January since 1893. But January followed Blacksburg’s fifth warmest December on record and preceded a February that was 3 degrees above normal.
The 2020-21 winter also seemed to defy some La Niña stereotypes in that it was very wet and close to normally cold, with frequent brushes with wintry precipitation. There weren’t really any widespread major winter storms for our region, but a mid-February ice storm did cause near total loss of power in multiple Southside Virginia localities.
An overall mild winter like 2021-22 or a middling winter like 2020-21, both La Niña winters, can spawn memorable cold, snow or ice even if the entire winter doesn’t average out that way.
So is there anything we should be cluing into that might define the winter ahead, either from La Niña or other factors?
One thing to consider that won’t make regional snow fans happy is that repeat La Niña winters have a tendency to be less snowy than La Niña winters as a whole.
Looking back over the historical records for over a century, Blacksburg averages 22 inches of snow (rounded) each winter (late fall to spring, really), Roanoke 18 inches and Lynchburg 15 inches. (Danville, the weather service’s other major climate station under the Cardinal News umbrella, just had too much missing snowfall data prior to 2000 to be considered in this comparison.)
In 25 La Niña winters since 1950, those snowfall averages drop to 19, 14 and 13, respectively, for Blacksburg, Roanoke and Lynchburg. In 11 La Niña winters that came a year after a previous La Niña, those averages go down to 17, 11 and 11 inches.
And there are two previous examples like the current winter when La Niña is hanging on for a third straight year. One of those was that almost snow-bare 1975-76 winter mentioned earlier – Blacksburg got 3 inches, Roanoke and Lynchburg 2 inches each, mostly in March. (Apparently no measurable snow at Danville.)
Another happened in 2000-01 – Blacksburg got a respectable 21 inches while Roanoke and Lynchburg had rather meager 8 and 7 inches, respectively, mostly from just two medium snowfalls.
Blacksburg’s 21 inches in 2000-01 gives a clue also that La Niña winters have somewhat of a tendency to be a little more wintry relative to normal farther west in our region than they do east of the Blue Ridge.
This was also true two winters ago, when Blacksburg piled up 24 inches to Roanoke’s 10, Lynchburg’s 9 and Danville’s 6. Bluefield, West Virginia, just over the line from the Southwest corner of Virginia, stacked up 45 inches, a foot more than normal, in the 2020-21 winter.
Storm tracks in La Niña winters tend to be farther west, bumped inland by persistent high pressure that often develops off the southeast coast of the U.S., dropping more snow on the Ohio Valley than east of the Appalachians. Storm systems have to veer less off that track to reach the Southwest part of the state with snow, especially west of I-77, than they do for Southside. Also, cold northwest winds spun by even milder rainy storm systems that have passed through squeeze out snow with upslope flow over the mountains while drying out to the east.
Of course, any forecast based on a La Niña winter presumes that La Niña will in fact continue and not fade out during the winter, and there is at least some opinion floating around that it may start to fizzle.
All that noted, there may be some factors outside La Niña that affect the coming winter, perhaps in ways opposite to what is generally expected.
Some observers have noted warm sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic may lead to a tendency for high pressure to develop there, which could lead to blocking patterns that curl the jet stream southward over the eastern U.S., leading to Arctic outbreaks. Some longer-range models have shown this negative phase of the North Atlantic Oscillation with some frequency moving toward the winter months.
Already in October, we’ve seen a tendency for patterns with high pressure banking cool air from Canada against the Appalachians as moisture-bearing systems move in across the South. The pattern surrounding Hurricane Ian to start the month and the one that brought some showery weather for Halloween both reflected this. If this is a harbinger of what happens when there is colder air involved in a couple months, we would have ample chances for wintry precipitation.
Browsing some winter forecasts online, you may find things discussed like Siberian snow cover, various atmospheric oscillations you may have never heard of (Madden-Julien and Quasi-Biennial are a couple that come up a lot), and even volcanic eruptions.
Most winter forecasts issued by any agency, media outlet or knowledgeable individual end up right in part, wrong in part. Rarely will you find a winter forecast that really nails it across the whole season, but many forecasts from reputable sources may have nuggets of information worth considering.
I will hold off a few weeks trying to project winter for Cardinal News territory, partly because I want to give you, the readers, a chance to make some wintry guesses first, as I have for many years in my previous newspaper weather column.
Look for details on how to enter the first Cardinal Weather snowfall contest next week.
Stats of the week
Some temperature numbers from a few regional cooperative weather stations, operated by volunteer observers, reveal how this October contrasted greatly with October a year ago.
At Burke’s Garden in Tazewell County, this was tied for the tenth coolest October on record, averaging 46.2 degrees, the coolest October since 1992. October 2021 was the 10th warmest, averaging 54.8 degrees. Records at Burke’s Garden go back to 1898 with only four years of October data disqualified for having more than two days of missing data.
At Wytheville, this was the third coolest October dating back to 1930, averaging 49.3 degrees. October 2021 was the sixth warmest at 58.5 degrees. Since 1930, only three years of October data were disqualified for having more than two days of missing data.
At Pulaski, it was the third coolest October dating back to 1960, averaging 49.7 degrees. October 2021 was the third warmest at 59.7 degrees. Four years of October records were disqualified for having more than two days of missing data.
There is no sign of winter for the next week, with dominant high pressure over the Eastern U.S. bringing warmer than normal temperatures most days until at least mid-November. Expect highs in the 70s several days and only occasional chances of showers, the next happening early next week. Toward mid-month, some colder air may again start filtering in.
Journalist Kevin Myatt has been writing about weather for 19 years. His weekly column is sponsored by Oakey’s, a family-run, locally-owned funeral home with locations throughout the Roanoke Valley.