Very cold temperatures turned waterfalls to ice at Poor Mountain Natural Area Preserve in southwest Roanoke County. Photo by Kevin Myatt.
Very cold temperatures turned waterfalls to ice at Poor Mountain Natural Area Preserve in southwest Roanoke County. Photo by Kevin Myatt.

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You’re on the rollercoaster, even though you didn’t buy a ticket.

After what was widely the coldest Christmas Eve since the 1980s across Southwest and Southside Virginia, the atmospheric pattern is flipping toward warmer than normal temperatures for New Year’s weekend and into the first week of 2023.

There are varying views on winter, but after roaring winds knocked power out for 150,000 Virginians in brutally cold weather during the biggest holiday weekend of the year, a period of milder weather will be a relief for many.

And, of course, it won’t last. There are already some signals that a colder pattern will re-establish perhaps 10 or so days into January.  

We were on a rollercoaster last holiday season, also, though the plunge happened just after New Year’s. As we noted last week, Christmas 2021 was one of the warmest on record for several sites in our region.

And New Year’s Day followed suit. It was a blazing 79 degrees in Danville, the warmest on record for the first day of the year, and Lynchburg’s 74 tied the same temperature on Jan. 1, 1952, for warmest on record. Roanoke’s high of 75 trailed only the 78 in 1952.

Two days later, winter snapped hard, with the sudden Jan. 3 snowstorm.

Red colors indicate the likelihood of warmer than normal temperatures over much of the eastern U.S. in early January. Courtesy of NOAA.

Currently, the blocking high in the northern latitudes that pushed so much bitterly cold air southward has relented, and mild Pacific air is set to flow across the entire 48 contiguous states over the next several days.

New Year’s Day won’t be as warm as last year in our region, and it will probably start out rainy. But several days of 50s and 60s highs are ahead, and we may scrape 70 sooner or later before colder weather returns at a still somewhat vague time early in 2023.

While we have this respite, let’s take a quick look at some superlatives and comparisons about our region’s Christmas weekend cold wave, which of course is only a small part of a huge Arctic outbreak and powerful Great Lakes winter storm that has killed more than 50 nationally, especially in the blizzard-buried Buffalo, New York, area.

Shown here in January 2021, this remote weather sensor, operated and maintained by Virginia Tech, at about a mile elevation inside Grayson Highlands State Park, recorded a low of -19 during last week’s Arctic cold snap. Photo by Kevin Myatt

COLD HARD FACTS OF CHRISTMAS WEEKEND

As it turned out, Christmas Eve ended up being the coldest of the two Christmas weekend days in our region.

Many locations along and west of the Blue Ridge went below zero.

  • An automated weather sensor at Grayson Highlands State Park recorded a low of -19.
  • Another automated weather sensor at Bald Knob, the high point above Mountain Lake in Giles County near 4,000 feet, recorded -15.
  • A volunteer-managed co-op station for the National Weather Service at Copper Hill in Floyd County dipped to -14.

The weather service’s major climate stations in our region recorded some of the coldest Christmas Eve temperatures in a generation. Unfortunately, technical problems sidelined the Danville station. Data from a nearby co-op station, showing single-digit lows in the 6 to 9 range, may be substituted in the official records, but for now we’ll leave that one alone.

  • At Blacksburg, the -4 low tied 1989 for the coldest Dec. 24 on record. Those are the only two sub-zero Christmas Eves recorded at Blacksburg since 1893.
  • At Roanoke, the low of 3 was the coldest Christmas Eve since the record of 0 set twice in the 1980s, 1983 and 1989. Those are the only three years with a Christmas Eve below 10 since 1912.  The high of 23 was also the coldest Dec. 24 high temperature on record, colder than 26 in 1960.
  • At Lynchburg, the low of 4 was the coldest Dec. 24 since it dropped to 1 in 1983. The high of 24 was also the coldest on record for Dec. 24 going back to 1893, beating 26 in 1989.

Christmas morning recovered a little more quickly than first expected with the peak of the Arctic air having passed. Still, Roanoke’s morning low of 14 was the coldest for Christmas since it was 11 in 1989, though well above the record -4 in 1983.

Very cold temperatures turned waterfalls to ice at Poor Mountain Natural Area Preserve in southwest Roanoke County. Photo by Kevin Myatt.

COMPARISONS TO RECENT COLD WAVES

Two cold waves in just the past eight years stand head and shoulders above this one for intensity, duration, or both.

Our region’s most severe Arctic outbreak since the mid-1990s occurred in February 2015.

That one arrived with almost as much drama as this one, roaring in on a Valentine’s Day Saturday night, quickly dropping temperatures from 40s to single digits and teens. It precipitated a true “flash freeze” as melting moisture from a brief snow squall froze quickly into ice on many roads. Two days later, much of our region got 6 to 9 inches of fluffy snow.

Blacksburg dropped below zero on three consecutive mornings, Feb. 19-21, all the way to -5 on the last two of those mornings.  With a perfect setup for radiational cooling – clear, calm, snow cover, high-pressure overhead – Lynchburg plunged to -11 on Feb. 20 – actually colder than the region’s two noted icebox sites, -10 at Burke’s Garden in Tazewell County and -9 at Copper Hill in Floyd County.  Conditions weren’t quite as perfect for temperature drop in Roanoke, but the same morning was the first and only zero-degree morning of the 21st century to date.

An Arctic blast with more longevity than this one, but not quite the peak intensity, occurred in early January 2018.

Jan. 1-7, 2018, was the coldest first week of January on record at Blacksburg, Roanoke and Lynchburg, averaging between 12 and 18 degrees.

Blacksburg had lows in the single digits each day until dropping to -1 on Jan. 7. Roanoke and Lynchburg each had single-digit lows on five of the seven days.

While the 2015 Arctic blast was peppered with three significant winter storms in our region and other days of snow showers and flurries over about a two-week period, the 2018 bitter cold spell passed almost totally dry.

A brief but heavy snow squall made driving conditions a little dicey near the New River Valley Mall in Christiansburg on Friday, not long after Arctic air began pouring into our region. Courtesy of Toby Wright.

WHERE WAS THE SNOW?

Snow fans in our region were mostly left out in the cold by this particular Arctic outbreak, the exception being some mostly 2,500+ elevations along and west of the Blue Ridge, and some streaky areas in lower elevations from the New River Valley westward, that got a little white on the ground shortly after the Arctic blast started.

The Arctic air mass didn’t move in quickly enough to catch up to Thursday’s storm system that dumped an inch or more of rain on much of our region, and a little bit of ice to a few spots. A few models a week before had shown this as a possibility, but it became quickly obvious the timing wouldn’t be sufficient to make that happen.

Another odd factor that kept it from being a little more snowy west of the Blue Ridge was that the Arctic air mass, propelled by the Great Lakes low, blew in from the west, not the northwest. This cut off the Great Lakes moisture supply for any prolonged rounds of upslope snow that typically blow over the Appalachians in a windy, cold air mass behind an Arctic front.

For those who entered guesses for Bluefield, W.Va., in the Cardinal Weather snowfall contest, Dec. 23 goes down as the date of the first 1-inch snowfall, with 1.2 inches having fallen. None of the other six sites have had their first 1-inch snow yet. Tri-Cities Airport outside Bristol got 0.4 and Blacksburg got 0.1 this go-round.

Very cold temperatures turned waterfalls to ice at Poor Mountain Natural Area Preserve in southwest Roanoke County. Photo by Kevin Myatt.

WHAT ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING?

There are two rash and unscientific things that get bandied around social media anytime there is a major Arctic outbreak in the U.S. (1) A single episode of extremely cold weather, by itself, disproves global warming. (2) An outbreak of extremely cold weather is entirely caused by global warming.

Keep in mind that any concept of winters getting milder is based on 30-year or longer averages over very large regions. That doesn’t preclude a particular winter or Arctic outbreak from being extremely, even historically, cold for a specific location or region.

Based on the Arctic Circle experiencing some of the greatest temperature rises over the past few decades, there is some observation and theory, still under study, that this could result in greater displacement of cold air masses southward, making the jet stream more “wavy” with big ups (warm spells) and downs (Arctic air intrusions). It’s not that winter would be getting worse, on average, but that some short-term regional winter events could be made more extreme.

Entirely on a natural level without even considering any human-induced climate change, unusual warmth in the far northern latitudes is the only reason it ever gets cold for very long, or very cold for a short time, at our latitude. It’s those blocking patterns – the North Pole-Southtown tradeoff in “The Year Without a Santa Claus” – discussed here three weeks ago. Without a warmer high-pressure center in the northern latitudes forcing cold air to a lower latitude, we’d have west-to-east flow and milder Pacific flow all winter, just like we’re about to have for a week or two.

And then, also, weather still happens. There is no expectation among the vast majority of climatologists or meteorologists that a warming global climate will cause winter to suddenly drive off a cliff and entirely disappear.

Some elements of winter may be changing or shifting in some ways from the past, but we still have winter and sometimes it gets rough.

Don’t sell your 4-wheel drive if you live on a steep hill. Don’t get rid of your snow shovels. Definitely don’t dispense with the generator, if you have one. You will need them again, possibly later this winter after our New Year’s warm spell, or if not then, in another winter soon.

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.