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Winter has finally arrived now that it’s almost over.
Meteorologists already declared the start of spring at the beginning of March – seasons are sets of three full months grouped together for statistical continuity – but the calendars you have on your wall, based on the astronomical calendar, say Monday, March 20, is the vernal equinox, marking the first day of spring.
Spring seemed as if it already started weeks ago in February when temperatures soared into the 70s, scraped 80 in a few places across Southwest and Southside Virginia, and lots of trees and plants started blooming, budding and greening way, way ahead of when they’re supposed to.
But the Ides of March (or mid-March, literally March 15 on the Roman calendar referred to by Shakespeare) lived up to prior billing, bringing back windy cold, a widespread dusting of snow Sunday, then streaks of mountain snow showers mixing with gust-scattered bloom petals Monday and Tuesday, followed by areawide subfreezing temperatures on Wednesday morning and likely again Thursday morning.
Our region gets a respite from cold with many 60s high temperatures Thursday and Friday, but alas, there is another cold front this week after some Friday-early Saturday showers with a renewal of 20s lows by Sunday and Monday and, then, maybe something else?
Toward the middle of next week, there are signals that a strong low-pressure system may take shape over or near the southeast U.S. or just offshore, tracking generally northeast or north-northeast.
If such a low were to throw moisture into sufficiently cold air inland, something that rhymes with “low” and “throw” could happen in quite abundance.
We have seen that transpire this week with a strong low off the Northeast U.S. coastline, the same storm system that brought that meek coating of snow on much of Southwest and Southside Virginia on Sunday before blossoming into something much more grand off the coast.
Whether, and where, and exactly when snow might happen next week is little more than digitally informed conjecture a full week out.
There will probably be a storm system of some sort in the eastern U.S. – the jet stream pattern supports it, numerous forecast models depict such a storm system developing in various locations in the same general region.
From this distance, such a low could be stronger or weaker, slower or faster, warmer or colder, or hundreds of miles north, south, east or west from what any computer forecast model is showing on its shifting runs now. There is even some chance it will not come to fruition at all.
But it is undoubtedly ominous.
A strong low along the coast of the Carolinas, with an upper-level low inland and late-season Arctic air draining south from Canada, has been a recipe for many late-March winter storms that have affected part or most of our region several times before. (The second section of this column recounts regional snow events of the past five-plus decades that have occurred after March 20.)
So watching what that low might do will become quite the preoccupation for regional weather geeks, even beyond Cardinal News territory to include the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic, Appalachians, Ohio Valley, and the Northeast, again.
As we recount below, widespread snow has happened in our region in late March and April on occasion, and not just in some colder past – only five and 10 years ago.
But, because of longer days, higher sun angle, and the general seasonal warming as the polar tilt begins to point the Northern Hemisphere more back toward the sun on the Earth’s solar circuit we have labeled 2023 A.D., it gets harder and harder with each passing day for a snow setup to develop at our latitude.
Time is running out on winter, even with this belated arrival of it. It appears temperatures will begin to moderate more toward what we expect for late March after next week.
But is there a grand exit for a winter that has shown up late, or will it be just a quiet escape through a split in the curtains for a winter that never really was? Next week likely decides that.
Snow after March 20 since 1970
Here are a few examples of when it has snowed substantially in parts of Southwest and Southside Virginia after March 20.
1971: It snowed hard, got warm, snowed hard again, and quickly got very warm after that. Two deep low-pressure systems on the coast of the Carolinas dumped rounds of heavy snow on March 25-27 and again April 6-7. The first of the two storms covered just about our entire region, with Danville getting 5 inches, 2-4 inches westward along the Virginia-North Carolina border through Hillsville and Bristol, and 6-8 inches northward toward the U.S. 460 corridor (Blacksburg-Roanoke-Lynchburg). The second storm in April was focused more to the west with its snow, with 12-15 inches around Burkes Garden and Bluefield, 10 inches in Blacksburg, 7 in Roanoke, and 5 as far east as Lynchburg. After that, temperatures shot back up into the 70s a couple days later.
1978: A deep coastal surface low with a trailing upper-level low, both barely creeping along, wreaked wet cold havoc in multiple ways over our region in late April 1978. More than 5 inches of rain fell at many locations from the New River Valley eastward to Southside on April 25-27, leading to what is still the third highest Roanoke River crest on record at Roanoke. But dynamic cooling with the upper-level low and its cold pool aloft also lowered the freezing level sufficiently for some of that heavy rain to fall as extremely heavy snow in higher elevations. As much as 1-2 feet fell above 3,000 feet in Floyd and Tazewell counties, and the snow level eventually dropped to around 2,000 feet for 6-10 inches in the Blacksburg-Christiansburg area. This is apparently the latest on the calendar for heavy snowfall at any fairly well-populated areas in our region.
1981: If something sizable were to happen next week, it would seem to have a lot in common with March 1981. Roanoke, for instance, didn’t have a single snow of 1 inch or greater in the 1980-81 winter, just as now, until getting 9 inches on March 23, three days into calendar spring. A low-pressure system steadily moving east-northeast from Louisiana to off the South Carolina coast spread moisture into colder air to the northwest, leading to 6-15 inches of snow at many locations in Southwest and Southside Virginia.
1987: This is the April snow of record, and one of heaviest on record at any time of year, for many locations in the Southwest areas west of Interstate 77, with 1-2 feet common, and some reports up to 30 inches, on April 5-7. Snow of up to a half-foot extended as far east as Roanoke and the Blue Ridge, dropping off quickly to the east. A strong low-pressure system tracked north-northeast from Alabama through eastern Virginia to New England along the leading edge of an Arctic air push, putting the western fringe of the state in the crosshairs for extreme snowfall. Very unlike this winter, the April snowstorm in 1987 followed a winter of frequent and heavy snowfall in our region. (Radford suffered a tornado a little more than a week before this snowstorm.)
2003: March was warm and everything was green and blooming. Saturday, March 29, topped out well into the 70s in most of our region. But by Sunday morning the 30th, 6-10 inches of tree-bending, bloom-sagging snow fell on many areas from the Blue Ridge westward, with somewhat lesser amounts leaking eastward as far as Lynchburg. Like a few of the previous episodes, it was due to a strong low near the coast of the Carolinas with a trailing upper-level low. It was a flash in the pan with a brief shot of cold and snow, then warm again.
2013: Much of the northern half of our region was covered by 4-8 inches of snow on Palm Sunday, March 24, with lesser amounts of wintry mix to the south. Lest we thought winter was over then, what was expected to be a brief wintry mix changing to rain caught up with deeper cold air than expected on April 4, quickly dumping 4-8 inches in the New River Valley, 1-3 around the Roanoke Valley, and a brief spray of snow even wider across the region.
2018: A low along the East Coast with an upper-level low inland led to widespread 2-6 inches across about much of our region on March 20-21, very similar to what had happened on March 11-12. But then came the weird storm, quite unlike any other late-season winter storm we’ve seen in recent decades, on March 24-25. A low-pressure system diving in from northwest to southeast along a tight temperature gradient between warm and cold southwest of our region produced a narrow stripe of extremely heavy snow from Ohio and Indiana across West Virginia, then across the New River Valley, the Blue Ridge and into Southside. Some spots in the core of the stripe got 12-18 inches, dropping off rapidly on both sides – 2 inches for Roanoke, nothing for Lynchburg. It was Blacksburg’s second snowiest March on record with 22.7 inches total.
A few other weather notes
· On Sunday, March 12, Roanoke and Danville each had record highs – record COLDEST highs – for the date. Roanoke’s high of 35 tied the record coldest high for March 12 set in 1998. Danville’s high of 36 beat the old March 12 record high of 38 set in 2018. This comes only 17 days after many sites in the region set record highs on Feb. 23.
· In case you missed it, we previously recapped Sunday’s snow and some of the snowlessness it broke at regional weather sites. Some areas near the West Virginia border and west of Interstate 77, especially higher elevations, have actually gotten more snow than Sunday out of Tuesday’s upslope snow squalls blowing over the mountains on northwest wind flow.
· La Niña was officially declared dead this week by scientific observers. The cooler-water phenomenon in the equatorial Pacific had lasted three years and was undoubtedly a major contributor to the warm, low-snow winter experienced in much of the eastern U.S. An El Niño pattern of warm equatorial Pacific water is expected by summer and fall. We’ll have to get back on what that might mean for weather in our region and beyond (it’s complicated!).
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.