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Add a narrowly missed major snowstorm to the 2022-23 winter’s LinkedIn profile.
A Super Bowl Sunday winter storm wasn’t narrowly missed in the sense of going around our region just to the north, south, east, or west, as happens in some years, but rather by a few degrees of temperature about a mile up, melting snowflakes on their way down into a cold, soaking 1-3-inch rain for Southwest and Southside Virginia, with a little mixed-in sleet at times and some patchy but rather substantial ice in higher elevations.
It was that close despite there being no source of even seasonably cold air to filter into the storm. The previous weekend’s Arctic air push plus this past weekend’s vigorous upper-level low on a track south of our region could have made for a historic winter storm with over a foot of snow if they had made a pre-Valentine’s Day love connection.
A pocket of cold air aloft associated with the upper-level low triggering this past weekend’s storm did move in as expected late Sunday, changing the rain into wet snow (“white mud,” some dub it) that accumulated anywhere from 1 to 5 inches in a fairly narrow stripe across the Interstate 77 corridor and along the southernmost part of Virginia’s segment of the Blue Ridge, places like Marion, Galax, Fancy Gap and Willis.
The snow stayed mostly above 2,300 feet in elevation, curiously skipped a few spots even at similar elevation along its path, and stayed completely south of the Blacksburg-Christiansburg-Radford end of the New River Valley. (Pulaski was near the borderline of how far north the snow got in the NRV, with snow reported on Draper Mountain but little or nothing in the town.)
Snow events driven entirely by cold pools with upper-level lows — more typical of late March than early February — often do some odd things, and this one went more eastward than northward with snow-capable air layers. That’s how it could snow in Hillsville but not in Covington. (The Roanoke Valley and anywhere east of the Blue Ridge were already out of the game for any expected snowfall by this point.)
If not having at least a single 1-inch snowfall is the marker we use to mark near-snowlessness, all four of the National Weather Service’s major climate stations in the region are having a virtually snowless winter through mid-February, as are the majority of other places under the Cardinal News umbrella save most of Southwest Virginia west of I-77, the Blue Ridge south of Floyd, a small patch of Southside near Nottoway County, probably most 3,500-foot-plus mountain summits, and a few other spots here and there like Eagle Rock in northern Botetourt County that got an inch and a half on Feb. 2.
Blacksburg came oh so close on that Groundhog Day, but alas reached only 0.8 inch, officially, and still is south of 1 inch total for the season at 0.9. Lynchburg got 0.2 the same day and a 0.1 coating of sleet that counts as snow on January 8 for 0.3 total – the Hill City will at least beat out its trace total in the 2019-20 winter.
Roanoke and Danville are still sitting on a trace – technically not totally snowless in a precise sense, but practically so, with no accumulation at all.
Danville last had a no-accumulation winter in 1998-99. Roanoke’s last trace-snow winter was 103 years ago, 1919-20, the second of two consecutive such winters. (Roanoke snow fans, think about how you would feel doing this again next year!)
The last time Roanoke didn’t have a single snow of at least an inch was 1990-91, cobbling together decimals, much of it sleet, for 1.2 total. So, following the definition offered above, the first full winter of the 1990s would be the last virtually snowless one for the Star City.
Blacksburg appears to never have had less than 2 inches of snow in a winter since records began in the late 1890s, and those 1950s records showing that amount are suspect. Getting only 2.5 inches in 1975-76 is likely the most verifiable low bar for snow.
As noted earlier in this column, the week of Valentine’s Day is a good time to take a renewed assessment of whether this winter — really extending into early spring — can go the distance as a virtually snowless season.
With generally above-normal temperatures expected to continue most of the rest of February, save a couple cold front passages, any chances for snow the rest of this month (maybe excluding the very end) will depend on short windows like this past weekend.
Next week may offer a couple of times there is a wet storm system passing through with somewhat colder air trying to push in from the north. Sure, one of these could accidentally lock in the right code and break through the region’s snow barrier only pinged the last couple weeks, but given how this winter has gone (i.e. persistence forecasting, or perhaps at this point, season-specific skepticism) and the lack of a true wintry pattern without much northern latitude high pressure blocking to force the cold air and storm track more south, odds are long.
* While severe storms are expected in states west of us the next couple of days, Virginia is expected to get breezy showers Thursday before a sharp but quick cooldown for Friday and Saturday. Go to @kevinmyattwx on Twitter or Kevin Myatt’s Weather Wonders on Facebook for posts on any developing weather.
Looking out farther, there may be some signals that March could take a colder turn, one of these being a recent stratospheric warming episode high over the North Pole. These are linked to southward incursions of Arctic air, but not fully understood.
If the Arctic air comes south, there’s no guarantee it heads our way, but it puts the ball in play. Some long-range models do advertise a colder March, relative to normal, than January or February have been over the eastern U.S. Hopefully this becomes clearer over the next couple of weeks.
In over a century of records at each site, there is at least a single day with 1 inch of snow between Feb. 15 and March 31 at Lynchburg 64% of the time; at Roanoke 61% of the time; at Danville 33% of the time; and at Blacksburg 73% of the time.
March is a real entity when it pertains to wintry weather in our region, and not just in some distant historic past when the climate was a little colder.
The 2013 and 2018 winters are the most recent strong examples of having winter in March.
In 2013, Roanoke and Lynchburg both totaled 8-10 inches in two snowfalls on March 6 and 25, Blacksburg getting just 4 inches (but making up for that on April 4 with 5 inches to Roanoke’s 1 and Lynchburg’s 0.1).
In 2018, March was colder than February on average at all four major climate stations, as record-smashing 80s highs occurred on Feb. 22. Yet, after that June day in February, March came back with three widespread snowfall events in the region, with Blacksburg having its second snowiest March on record with almost 23 inches.
There also seems to be some tendency historically for especially warm or nearly snowless winters to have a March fling with what it had been missing.
The region’s warmest winter of all in 1931-32 had a bout of snow and the coldest temperatures of the season a week deep into March. The 1975-76 winter waited until March 9 for a couple of inches in the region’s central and western areas to raise decimal-level snow totals similar to this winter to date.
More recently, 2008-09 delivered a March 1 snowstorm that was more focused on the eastern half of our region after very little snow in the three months before.
If there is a climate change signal for narrowing timing of seasonal snowfall in the last several years specifically for our region, it would be more about losing snow in many Decembers (the big storm of Dec. 9, 2018, being a huge exception) than about losing snow in March. Long-range climate trends may suggest that, over time, low-snow winters akin to this may be becoming a bit more common, but it offers no real guidance on what this particular season will do from here to the end of March.
So weighing all of that against the late-stage La Niña-driven persistence of mild temperatures and a not-favorable storm track for winter storms the past three months, there is probably still a good chance, 60-75% or so, that Blacksburg and most of the New River Valley yet gets a 1-inch or greater snowfall before the end of March, about a coin flip for Lynchburg and Roanoke and the central parts of our region, and around 30-40% for Danville and most of Southside.
There is no denying a historically snowless winter is on the table for much of our region, but March often has a way of overturning tables.
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.