Cardinal News business reporter Megan Schnabel photographed heavy ice accumulations in the higher elevations of Bath County on Friday.
Cardinal News business reporter Megan Schnabel photographed heavy ice accumulations in the higher elevations of Bath County on Friday.

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We’re all going to get a lump of cold in our stockings on Christmas morning, whether we want it or not.

What is still to be decided in the next 48 hours, over the course of Thursday and Friday, is whether or not your Christmas will be white.

Generally speaking, your chances of having a Currier and Ives quality snow scene outside your window Christmas morning are greater the farther west you live within Cardinal News territory, spanning Southwest and Southside Virginia.

What is very likely everywhere in our region is one of the coldest Christmas mornings in several years, since the 1980s for many locations, with single-digit lows in the western fringes of the state and no warmer than the mid teens even in Southside.

Combined with the record warmth some locations experienced last Christmas, this weekend’s Arctic blast will be reminiscent of the historic Christmas contrasts of 1982 and 1983 in our region.

We’ll get back to discussing white Christmases and the 1982 to 1983 warm to cold Christmas flip, but first let’s look at what is expected to happen over the next couple of days with possible wintry precipitation.

Matt Weddle of Roanoke captured a stunning sunrise over an icy landscape at Dragon’s Tooth on the Appalachian Trail near Catawba in western Roanoke County on Friday, the day after many higher elevations in western Virginia experienced an ice storm.

WINTRY WEATHER SETUP

The next couple of days do not look to unfold in a way that will please either those who want a widespread, postcard white Christmas or those who would prefer mild, dry weather without any wintry precipitation entanglements.

Here is a general idea of what is expected in our region as a strong low-pressure intensifies near the Great Lakes and helps propel an extremely cold air mass into the region for the Christmas weekend.

Friday morning’s forecast weather map shows a cold front moving across our region as a low-pressure system deepens over Michigan. The lines around the low are isobar, connecting points of equal air pressure. So many close together indicate the likelihood of strong winds. Courtesy of National Weather Service.

Wintry mix late on this Wednesday night into Thursday. As moisture is lifted northward by the strong low developing to the west, it will encounter cold air across Southwest and Southside Virginia. While brief sleet is possible just about anywhere, the best chance of wintry mix – freezing rain, sleet, perhaps brief wet snow – lingering for a few hours will be along and west of the Blue Ridge. Temperatures will eventually warm above freezing for precipitation to change to rain just about everywhere, but there could be some icy hours in the westernmost parts of our region lingering perhaps even into the afternoon in some areas close to Interstate 64 and the West Virginia state line.

Periods of rain Thursday into early Friday. Once temperatures have warmed, rain will continue across our region intermittently through Thursday into Thursday night and early Friday. Widespread amounts of ½ to 1 inch are likely. Temperatures will likely remain nearly steady or even rise some through the 40s on Thursday night.

Arctic cold front, possible snow on Friday. The deepening low near or over Michigan will sling a strong cold front through during the morning hours on Friday. Winds will turn to the west and northwest and temperatures will begin dropping with the front’s passage. A band of snow is expected to follow the front, at least across Southwest Virginia up to Interstate 77. Beyond that it is somewhat questionable how far the snow band will continue, but it could easily blow across the New River and Roanoke valleys and the Blue Ridge, possibly even into parts of the Piedmont and Southside. Southwest areas of Virginia west of Interstate 77 have the best chance of picking up a quick inch or two with this snow band, locally 3, with a chance of a coating to an inch as far east as the Blue Ridge. Probably just brief passing snow showers farther east. Whether or not your location gets snow, previously puddled rain water on roadways may freeze into ice as temperatures plummet.

Howling winds, frigid temperatures, mountain snow showers Friday into Saturday. Winds behind the cold front may gust up to 60 mph at times, especially on ridgetops. This poses the risk of power outages, especially if any higher elevation locations hang onto ice from Thursday’s freezing rain. Those winds will also lift moisture over the Appalachians, leading to upslope snow showers, especially in West Virginia but also blowing over into the mountains nearest the West Virginia line and west of Interstate 77. Some snowflakes may zip through on the frigid winds farther eastward as well. Temperatures will fall into the single digits in western areas and low to mid teens over Southside both Christmas Eve and Christmas mornings.

Beyond Christmas, it will continue to be cold for a few days before a gradual warmup approaching the start of the new year. There are a couple of systems to watch moving through the upper atmosphere to see if they could squeeze out some snow in our region, though there is no obvious “next storm” to focus on as of this writing. I’ll be keeping an eye on it just in case – follow me @kevinmyattwx on Twitter or on my Kevin Myatt’s Weather Wonders page on Facebook for updates between the regular Wednesday weather posts in Cardinal News.

Ice accumulation frosted the tops of mountains in the region, including this one near Fincastle. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

WHITE CHRISTMAS?

It may seem strange but true that the National Weather Service has an actual official definition for something made popular by a World War II-era Bing Crosby song. For statistical purposes, a white Christmas is defined as one with at least 1 inch of snow on the ground on Christmas

For our region, these generally occur somewhere between 5 and 15 percent of Christmases, more in the west and in higher elevations, less to the east and in lower elevations.

For locations from Roanoke and the Blue Ridge westward through the New River Valley all the way to the southwest corner, the last white Christmas was just two years ago, in 2020. Cold air caught the backside of a departing rain shield late on Christmas Eve and just past midnight on Christmas morning for postcard timing of 1 to 5 inches of snow. The snow didn’t get too far east of the Blue Ridge before diminishing.

Before that, you have to go back to 2009 and 2010 for white Christmases that encompassed much more of our region, including the Piedmont and Southside areas east of the Blue Ridge.

In 2009, it was leftover snow from the widespread foot-plus Dec. 18-19 snowstorm (somewhat less in parts of Southside and the far southwest corner) – though it rained into the lingering snowpack all that Christmas Day. In 2010, it was an intermittent light snow event that left widespread 1-4 inches across our region.

Ice collected on tree branches in southwest Roanoke County early Thursday. Photo by Kevin Myatt

WARM CHRISTMAS, COLD CHRISTMAS

Do you remember how warm it was last Christmas?

It was the warmest Christmas on record at Roanoke, hitting 69 degrees, topping the 68-degree Christmas of 1982. Lynchburg topped out at 72, tying the record Christmas high set in 1982. Danville reached 73 which was the warmest high on Christmas since … well, only back to 2015 when it was 74, which tied 1955. The next warmest beyond those, though, was 68, in 1982 and 1979.

1982 comes up a lot on the subject of warm Christmases in our region, and throughout the central and eastern U.S. It was the winter of a strong El Niño, with raging warm water in the central Pacific, fueling an unusually strong subtropical jet stream that kept it warm and wet in much of December.

In my youth, this was a December with two separate rounds of tornadoes and epic flooding in my native Arkansas. My family and I spent Christmas Eve night hiding in interior rooms from twisters prowling the Yuletide scene not many miles away from us.

But Christmas 1982 was followed 12 months later by its alter ego, as extremely frigid Arctic air poured across the central and eastern United States over the last two weeks of December in 1983.

The epic cold reached its peak on Christmas morning, with still untouched record Dec. 25 lows of -13 at Bluefield, W.Va., -8 at Blacksburg, -4 at Roanoke, -4 at Lynchburg, and 3 at Danville.

(Southwest Virginia icebox Burke’s Garden fell to -13, but actually beat that on Christmas morning 1989, when it was -21. 1989 was in the single-digits in many locations across our region and may end up being the last Christmas colder than this one at multiple stations.)

Despite the extremely cold temperatures, there was no snow cover reported at any of those locations on Christmas morning in 1983.

Though a few spots dropping below zero are not out of the question in the western fringe of the state, we are generally not expecting the same level of extreme cold this Christmas as happened in 1983.

Yet, to a large extent, history is repeating itself almost 40 years later as a frigid Christmas follows a toasty one.

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.

Kevin Myatt

Kevin Myatt wrote the Weather Journal in The Roanoke Times for 19 years. He has led students on storm chases and written for “Capital Weather Gang.” Twitter: @KevinMyattWx. Email: weather@cardinalnews.org.