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Deep down, we all know winter is still coming.
Warm Februarys don’t just skip merrily into the arms of a welcoming spring and live happily ever after.
But now, there is some tangible scientific evidence to back the deep-seated feeling that a historically warm and snowless winter in Virginia and much of the East won’t just go quietly away and could possibly re-write its narrative with a new ending.
NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center issued a graphic by social media last week with unusual elaboration on its usually routine 3-4-week forecast.
“Following an exceptionally warm January and February across the eastern U.S., there is increasing confidence in a major pattern change leading to colder than normal conditions,” the “Key Messages” part of the graphic for March 11-24 states. “There is higher than normal confidence in this pattern chance as a result of 1) robust circulation patterns in both the Tropics and the Arctic and 2) an ongoing sudden stratospheric warming event that can lead to cold air outbreaks.”
We’ve talked about the stratospheric warming here previously, and how that occurring above the North Pole can lead to a southward push of Arctic air at the surface a couple weeks later. Combined with strong blocking high pressure over Greenland and, perhaps in time, a somewhat less hostile pattern over the western U.S., this colder air is projected by multiple long-range computer models to ooze southward over the central and eastern U.S. toward the second week of March.
The circulation patterns in the tropics likely refer partly to the apparently dying phase of the 3-year La Niña, or cool equatorial Pacific waters, that has led to the persistent southeast U.S. high pressure system that has just about entirely deflected away snow and long-lasting colder air from the East this season.
It also may refer to the phases of the Madden-Julian Oscillation entering one or two of its eight phases that correlate with colder weather in the eastern half of the U.S. The Madden-Julian Oscillation is about the pattern of clouds, rain, wind and air pressure in the western Pacific equatorial region. We won’t dive deep into it today other than to say it is entering phases different than what we’ve seen most of winter.
What this all means precisely for Southwest and Southside Virginia remains to be seen, still being more than a week out before the cold outbreak is expected to start unfolding.
At the low end, it could just be a few windy cold fronts that are a bit annoying for anyone trying to have baseball games or barbecues, maybe some snow showers blowing over the mountains, and a few subfreezing mornings but not necessarily a really hard freeze.
At the most, we could have about two weeks that should have happened in January or February instead, with frequent cold fronts, teens lows on a day or two, and more than one fling with wintry precipitation.
The final outcome will probably be something in between these extremes.
The lingering drama about whether it snows or not in our region during March, or if some places like Roanoke and Danville end up entirely without accumulating snow for the entire cold end of the calendar in 2022-23 and many others end up with their least snow in a generation or even a century, is really a sideshow tent to the most important issue, which is what becomes of all this way-early blooming and greening of plants going on.
With mostly mild temperatures expected through at least the first week of March, maybe as long as the first 10 days, we’re not done seeing leaves and blooms pop out on trees and other plants.
Gardeners and growers know far more than me about their specific plants, but in general, having several mornings below 28 degrees for a few hours could be disastrous to many plants already blooming or greening, with lesser effects for a few brief dips into the 28-32 range.
And since we’ve had such a warm January-February period, the comparable vegetation rate is more like we average for late March or even early April than just starting March.
Of course, several inches of wet snow or, even worse, a few tenths of an inch of icing from freezing rain would do even more damage to trees than it normally would, with more surface area on limbs to collect upon with buds, blooms and even leaves, and more of those broken limbs would end up across power lines.
So if some belated wintry precipitation episode does develop, it could have a greater impact than what we would expect with a similar event in mid-winter (though, usually less impact than a mid-winter event on warmth-holding roadways).
Any discussion of March wintry weather inevitably seems to inspire someone to bring up the Blizzard of 1993, also known as the Superstorm in its broader context, now coming up on its 30th anniversary on March 12-13.
That was unquestionably a memorable event and an intense example of how March can turn deeply wintry, with feet of drifting snow across much of our region, but it was also such an extraordinary event that it’s not really a good one to focus on as something that could reasonably be replicated with any March cold outbreak this go-round.
An older generation might remember March 1960. Much of our region saw 2-3 feet of snow during that month, continuing what started in mid-February, in what for many locations in our region is by far the coldest March on record. That, too, appears to a few levels beyond what we’re likely to see this March.
I’ve brought up recent examples of March 2013 and 2018 in this space, when late-season mild to warm temperatures gave way to multiple snow events and repeated cold pushes, even into early April.
But something like April 2007 may also be valid, here, given how advanced the spring foliage is. The April 2007 cold outbreak was disastrous for Virginia fruit growers – hopefully fruit trees are not widely that far enough along for something like that this time. (Snow flurries in the air in the medical response to the Virginia Tech shooting on April 16 may be our most lasting images of that spring cold spell.)
We are coming up on the 20th anniversary of the March 30, 2003, snowstorm, which dumped 6-10 inches of wet snow on much of the region from the Blue Ridge west, even into the lower parts of the Roanoke Valley. That followed a warm March – the snow happened the day after widespread 70s to near 80 temperatures — so it caused a lot of damage on well-leafed and blossomed trees.
Even some of these post-2000 examples may exceed what we end up with this March. But if your precious outdoor plants already look like April, you might think about ways you can protect them from likely mid-March cold weather, perhaps something you don’t usually think about for so early on the calendar.
Warmest February on record
Meteorological winter ended Tuesday, and there is a lot to unpack about its mild temperatures and snowlessness relative to both history and climate expectations for the future.
For now, given time constraints, let’s focus only on February temperatures at the National Weather Service’s four major climate stations in our region, plus two barely across the state line in Southwest Virginia.
It was the warmest February on record in 131 years of nearly complete records (fewer than 3 missing days) at Lynchburg, averaging 48.6 degrees, beating out 47.8 from February 1932.
It was the warmest February on record in 111 years of nearly complete records at Roanoke, averaging 50.1 degrees, beating out 48.3 in February 2017. This is significant as the first winter month — December, January or February — to average 50 degrees or more at Roanoke. (December 2015 was close at 49.9 degrees.)
It was the warmest February on record in 100 years of nearly complete records at Danville, averaging 50.0 degrees, beating out 49.1 in February 1927. December 2015, averaging 52.4 degrees, is the only prior winter month to average 50 at Danville.
It was tied for the warmest February on record in 130 years of nearly complete records at Blacksburg, averaging 43.8 degrees, equaling February 1932.
It was the fourth warmest February on record in 95 years of nearly complete records at Bluefield, W.Va., averaging 43.6 degrees. February 2018 is the leader at 44.3 degrees.
It was the second warmest February on record in 85 years of nearly complete records at Tri-Cities Airport, Tennessee, representing the Bristol, Va., area, averaging 48.3 degrees, losing out to 49.4 in February 2018.
Any way you cut it, a historically warm February and part of a historically mild, snowless or nearly snowless winter across Southwest and Southside Virginia. Even some colder March weather won’t detract from that legacy.
For the next few days, March is acting more like spring than winter, and more like the February before it than what it may ultimately become.
Temperatures will continue to be mild with 60s to lower 70s highs, then a slight drop to 50s highs for the weekend, and back into the 60s early next week. Lows might be near freezing for some by Monday morning, but generally will remain above normal.
Two rounds of rain are on the way, one overnight on this Wednesday, and the second on Friday. The second round in particular may become a bit rumbly, with a marginal to slight risk of severe storms for many of our region’s Southwest Virginia counties.
Severe thunderstorms are defined as those producing wind gusts of at least 58 mph, hail of 1 inch or more in diameter, or a tornado.
As we get deeper into the warmer months, beyond whatever cold spell March brings, we’ll be focusing more in this column on severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, and there might be at least a chance of a few with gusty winds on Friday.
March has many faces — lion, lamb, polar bear? — arguably our month most capable of acting like any of the four seasons on a given day. This one looks likely to be quite dynamic.
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.