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Longtime residents of a certain age are still snowed under by the Blizzard of ’93.
Snow was deeper across most of Southwest and Southside Virginia almost three years later in January 1996, but that’s not the 1990s snowstorm our region’s Baby Boomers and Generation X residents talk about most.
Sunday and Monday mark the 30th anniversary of the Blizzard of ’93, more widely known as the Superstorm for its broader impacts that also included East Coast tidal flooding, a hurricane-like storm surge along the eastern Gulf Coast, a derecho for south Florida and Cuba, several tornadoes also in Florida, and widespread deep snow and powerful winds from Alabama to Maine.
In 2023, it’s a much different story. Sunday, March 12, will mark one year since the last measurable snow at Roanoke (0.3 inch on the morning of 2022 St. Patrick’s Day parade) and one year since the last snow of 1 inch or greater at Blacksburg (1.2 inches) and at Bristol (4 inches at nearby Tri-Cities Airport in Tennessee), with many other sites in our region already several weeks past a year since either the last measurable or last 1-inch-plus snowfall.
Subfreezing temperatures began returning on Wednesday morning with more likely on Thursday morning, as the weather pattern has shifted to allow Arctic air to move southward more than we’ve seen most of the winter. The weekend may bring a couple chances for at least some wintry mix or wet snow in parts of the region. More on that in the second section of this column.
The Blizzard of 1993 began for Virginia on a Friday evening after a sunny day in the 40s and 50s three decades ago as an extraordinary strong low-pressure system began tracking northeast out of the Gulf of Mexico into the Southeast U.S., spreading abundant Gulf of Mexico moisture into an Arctic air mass over the Eastern U.S. Snow continued well into Saturday, dumping 1-3 feet on most of our region, followed by a couple of extremely cold mornings for so late in the season with many single-digit lows.
What sets the Blizzard of ’93 apart from other large snowstorms of recent decades in Virginia is that first word with a capital B.
It is apparently the last time a large section of our region was placed under a blizzard warning, with howling winds, blinding visibility and house-sized drifts in some places to justify it.
Snowstorms in 1996, 1998, 2009, 2014, 2016 and 2018 also brought snowfall amounts in the 1-3-foot range over large sections of our region, but none of those storms contained the strength and duration of winds (35 mph or greater over 3 hours) to qualify as a “blizzard,” at least on any widespread basis.
The lateness on the calendar also stands out.
While some of the mountainous areas in the western parts of our region have experienced foot-plus snow at later dates, March 12-13, 1993, was the latest on the calendar in the 20th or 21st century to date that has produced a foot or more of snow across at least half of the Cardinal News coverage region from Cumberland Gap to Cumberland County, the James River to the North Carolina line. And it did so for the whole region except the easternmost parts of Southside that got something less than a foot.
Some lore has developed over time that the Superstorm produced our region’s only snowfall of the 1992-93 season, but the statistical record doesn’t quite bear that out.
Snow did get a late start in the 1992-93 winter, with very little in the region until mid-February. The last week of February 1993 brought a storm system that was sort of a dress rehearsal for the Superstorm, its circulation center moving from near the Florida Panhandle to off the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Snowfall of 4-8 inches was common across much of Southwest and Southside Virginia.
The low-pressure system in the Blizzard of ’93 took a track farther west, just inland of the East Coast, right over Richmond, which recorded a record low barometric pressure of 28.50 inches of mercury. Typically, we consider anything below 29.50 inches of mercury as a really strong low-pressure system, often associated with a recent hurricane landfall.More than 300 people were killed in the Superstorm including 13 in Virginia. Snowfall exceeded 50 inches in the highest terrain of North Carolina and topped 40 inches at Snowshoe, West Virginia — likely some of Virginia’s 4,000-plus elevations topped 3 feet.
The lead-up to the storm was considered a forecasting and communication breakthrough, as meteorologists were confident of the storm’s development many days in advance and began issuing blizzard warnings two days ahead of time. The warning was so early that authorities had time to pluck through-hikers off the Appalachian Trail before the storm’s arrival.
It would be difficult to replicate the atmospheric conditions precisely that went into the formation of the 1993 Superstorm, but we are always on borrowed time between major winter storms.
As hard as it may seem during a warm, snow-bare winter, this region will one day again, probably sooner than we can fathom, experience a snowstorm dumping more than a foot over a wide area, possibly even with blizzard-force winds.
It’s only been a little more than a year since the last time motorists in Virginia were stranded overnight on an interstate by heavy snow, in 8-12-inch snow totals, during the Jan. 3 snowstorm on Interstate 95.
When the Blizzard of 1993 happened, there had not been a snowstorm of a foot or more over more than isolated, high-elevation areas of our region in more than six years, since January 1987. It’s not been quite five years since the last widespread foot-plus snowstorm now, the last one coming Dec. 9, 2018.
There doesn’t appear to be anything on the horizon even remotely close to the caliber of the Blizzard of ’93 this March. But on this 30th anniversary, remember that experience or listen to those who experienced it, and realize that winter ferocity can and will visit again.
March turns colder
The weather pattern shift has begun that will lead to periodic infusions of cold air into the Eastern U.S., breaking a long springlike period that dominated the latter half of February.
A cold front that brought windy weather on Tuesday was followed by cold, dry air with many subfreezing lows on Wednesday morning, with more expected on Thursday morning. Being March, with a healthy sun angle, daytime highs will rebound into the 50s to near 60 at most locations on sunny days, excluding some mountain areas.
Low-pressure systems on Thursday night and early Friday and again on Sunday will bring some rain to our region. Temperatures may be just cold enough that some wintry mix – freezing rain, sleet or wet snow – may occur in higher elevations and the northern fringes of our region.
The system on Sunday may take a more southerly track with cold air banked against the mountains, so it may have a greater potential for a bit more widespread wintry precipitation.
Next week will bring some more windy cold and some chilly nights and mornings that may continue to harm some already bloomed plants. There may be precipitation toward the latter part of the week.
A virtual no-hitter for snowfall this season at many locations in our region is reaching the bottom of the ninth inning. It’s going to take a lucky/unlucky alignment (depending on your view of snow) to break through with significant or even just measurable snowfall at locations that have seen scant amounts or none at all.
But it is March, there is going to be some cold air available, and strange things happen sometimes.
Severe weather awareness week
This is Severe Weather Awareness Week in Virginia, a statewide tornado drill having happened on Tuesday morning.
The best general advice is to move indoors when you hear thunder, to avoid lightning danger, and move to an interior room away from windows if a severe thunderstorm or tornado warning is issued, or you otherwise sense a potential danger from high winds or possibly a tornado.
The Cardinal News coverage area has been visited by destructive, long-track EF-3 tornadoes in 2016 (Appomattox County), 2017 (Lynchburg and Amherst County) and 2019 (Franklin County), so considering the risk of tornadoes is not merely theoretical or overly focused on a distant historical anomaly.
As noted last week, severe thunderstorms and tornadoes will become more of a focus for this column as we begin to move out of the cold season, along with other general topics about climatic trends and our region’s varied geography as it applies to weather.
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.