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We’ve shivered but haven’t shoveled.
Southwest and Southside Virginia have had an impactful winter event this season, but we haven’t really had a winter storm.
While many people judge a winter entirely for how much snow it produces, the extreme cold accompanied by power-disrupting high winds just before Christmas already mark this winter with a memorable cold episode that in some ways exceeds in severity what we’ve seen in several prior winters.
But that is all history now. 2023 opened with mild temperatures, even record-setting warmth in a couple cases, and has only settled back to something close to normal in the past few days.
It was cold enough for yet another borderline, elevation-varying round of cold rain, freezing rain, and sleet across our region on Sunday. Late Friday and early Saturday may bring some snow showers blowing across the mountains after a new cold front passes through behind a late Thursday and early Friday round of rain.
But there remains no obvious widespread winter storm risk on our foreseeable horizon, likely taking us into late January with most locations in our region having seen a trace to only a few tenths of an inch of snow this season.
Pessimistic snow fans in some of the lower elevations are already running ahead to the possibility of a snowless winter, while pessimistic winter haters are certain there will be a karmic price to pay for early January warmth sooner or later.
Our fondest hopes and darkest fears are seldom realized.
Below are some scenarios for the winter ahead with my estimated percentage probabilities of each occurring. They add up to 100%, but no individual scenario is above 50%, as it’s too early to declare anything “likely” yet.
Mostly normal to mild temperatures, a few cold shots, some snow. (40% chance)
When in doubt, follow persistence forecasting, basically what is happening now will continue happening – in this case bolstered by the historic trends of a La Niña winter (generally mild with a few short but sharp cold shots), continued strong upper-air flow from the west out of the Pacific Ocean, the mild trends on several long-range forecast models, and what has happened in previous winters like 1983-84 and 1989-90 with an extreme Arctic outbreak in December.
December 1983 and 1989 were mentioned a lot during December’s Arctic blast because it was the last time it had been as cold or colder at Christmas. But there wasn’t much winter after Christmas in either of those winters.
The 1983-84 winter was in the single digits for inches of total snowfall in most of our region, with a warm February. The 1989-90 winter had 10-20 inches for several stations in our region, much closer to historic norms, but it had already done most of its snowing before Christmas with just some small ones later as both January and February turned quite warm relative to normal.
There is no law of physics that locks in a milder winter with less snow after a frigid Christmas Eve and Christmas in our region, but it’s often the case that the coldest air gets poured out coming early like that and doesn’t easily recharge and return to the eastern U.S.
However, even if temperatures on the whole tilt mild, 10 weeks from mid-January to mid-March is just a long time to go without cold air and moisture catching up with each other once or twice sufficiently to produce at least a few inches of snow over much of our region.
So, the plurality pick here isn’t quite snow lovers’ worst nightmare or winter haters’ wildest dream. Scroll down three more for that.
An approximately two-week cold spell with a good chance of significant snow in late January or February. (25% chance)
Atmospheric experts are watching for something called a “sudden stratospheric warming” event, debating about whether they see signs of it developing, perhaps toward the end of this month or early in February.
Such a warming in the layer of the atmosphere above the one in which we breathe, the troposphere, over the North Pole results in a southward displacement of very cold air several days afterward. Whether that would come our way in Virginia or go somewhere else would depend on various other atmospheric factors.
Short of that, the polar vortex elongating toward the eastern U.S., and/or high-pressure blocks developing in key places (Greenland, the Arctic Circle, the Western U.S.) could bring a renewed cold spell of 1 to 3 weeks sometime later this winter, with the attendant risk of winter storms as the storm track is pressed along the south edge of the colder air.
A model winter for this kind of situation was February 2015, which had produced minimal snow with a mild December and normal-temperature January before the Artic hounds were unleashed near Valentine’s Day. The rest of February produced three winter storms and the coldest temperatures of the 21st century to date.
The “one-hit wonder”: Mostly normal to mild temperatures with one big winter storm. (10% chance)
This is just like the first option except that one storm system combining a short cold snap and ample moisture catches lightning in a bottle and blows up into a large winter storm for our region.
This doesn’t necessarily mean what we would call a major or historic winter storm with over a foot of snow, but something that would dump 6 or more inches on half or more of our region, or perhaps, a quarter-inch of ice accretion for a significant ice storm with more power outages.
Something fairly close to this happened in February 2012, when it appeared one of the warmest winters on record might pass nearly snowless at many locations, before a Feb. 19 storm dumped 5-8 inches on much of Southwest and Southside Virginia in a narrow 48-hour window between 60-degree temperatures. There was no other snow cover for hundreds of miles west and north.
Mostly mild to warm temperatures with little or no snow. (10% chance)
Sometimes, it just doesn’t snow … much.
An absolutely snowless winter across all of Southwest and Southside Virginia, with no flakes at any time, or even one with no accumulation anywhere at anytime, has never happened in recorded weather history dating to the 1800s, and even if global warming forecasts max out, probably wouldn’t happen for decades.
A winter that produces less than 3 inches at most of the sub-2,000-foot elevations in our region and less than 6 in most of the 2,000-to-3,500-foot areas (the highest mountains are almost always going to get more) is a pretty good way to define a “nearly snowless winter” on a regional basis. (There would be a climate change argument for these type winters becoming more frequent, but not dominant, at least yet.)
2019-20, as the pandemic was revving up, was a winter like this for most of our region. It was Lynchburg’s only winter on record with no snow accumulation at all. (1996-97 being snowless in some databases is erroneous.) Roanoke got only 1.6 inches, all on Jan. 7, the first time in 29 years there was not one single snowfall of at least 2 inches. Danville matched Roanoke’s 1.6 in a different snowfall and Blacksburg was just under 5 inches total.
Other definitively almost-snowless winters across our region are 1975-76 and 1918-1919. The winter after that, 1919-20, plus some 1930s years, the early 1990s and early 2000s winters like ‘01-02, ‘06-07 and ‘07-08 would qualify similarly for significant sections of our region.
My rule of thumb is not to start talking about the serious possibility of a snowless winter or nearly so until and unless it gets to Valentine’s Day with little or no snow having fallen and no prospects for significant cold or snow on the horizon. But even then, there’s March.
Winter comes in March. (10% chance)
2013 and 2018 provide a couple of recent examples when March turned out more wintry than the preceding winter months for many locations in our region. (March is entirely outside winter on the meteorological calendar, but on the astronomical calendar, the one on your wall, the first two-thirds of March are still winter.)
An interesting historic example is the region’s runaway winner as warmest winter on record, 1931-32, when a winter of blazing warm temperatures quickly shifted to an Arctic cold blast and 6 inches or more of snow over the western half of our region not quite a week into March.
The regionwide blizzard with the March 1993 Superstorm may be the most well-known example of winter in March, although largely lost in the memory of many, there was also significant snow in the latter half of February that year.
Even if the rest of January and February stay mild, March could still deliver the wintry goods, it’s just too far out there to do more than speculate about in early January.
Second half of winter turns dramatically colder, very snowy. (5% chance)
On Feb. 10, 1960, there was no reason to think any kind of special winter was afoot. There was 1-2 inches of rain that day around Southwest and Southside Virginia and temperatures had reached the 60s the day before.
There had been a little snow in early January but it had been as warm as 70 with no additional snowfall since.
Then Feb. 12 to March 20 happened with 30 to 60 inches of snow and two widespread foot-plus storms over much of the region.
There is absolutely no sign of anything remotely similar happening this year, no real objective reason to think it might, but then, there probably wouldn’t be until a week or so before such a winter onslaught started, and even then we would just be seeing the first few days of such a stretch ahead, not the entirety of it.
So, yes, there’s a chance of big snowfall winter yet, but probably a little less than the chance of an almost snowless one. Something in between is more likely what will happen.
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.