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Winter has exited quietly stage right.
It strutted a decent late, desperate hour upon the stage, tapping out a couple of final small flings with snow and, early this week, three consecutive mornings many degrees below the freezing mark that likely froze off or set back many blooming things that had burst out in February.
After temperatures as low as 9 degrees this past Monday morning at Burkes Garden in Tazewell County and teens and lower 20s across the region (see second section for breakdown of Monday temperatures across region), many locations especially in Southside west to the Roanoke Valley and the eastern flank of the Blue Ridge will see high temperatures near or above 80 degrees Thursday and/or Friday. (A cool wedge of air from the north might interfere with the warmth in some areas on Friday.)
A week ago in this space, we posed and pondered this question: “Could this belated winter have a grand finale in the works?”
But no sooner had that weather newsletter hit your inbox or my snow-covered landscape photo from Palm Sunday 2018 hit your computer screen than it started becoming apparent that the atmospheric pattern that had delivered cold air in March, and could possibly deliver one concluding coastal storm that might even plop one final warm winter-defying snowfall, was unraveling just a bit too fast for that to happen.
It still had time to drop off its last and harshest package of cold air, but high-pressure blocking patterns that might force a low-pressure to near the Gulf Coast or the southeast U.S. coast with cold air parked to the north were relaxing.
So now, after Monday’s vernal equinox and the passing of the last deep cold shot of this tardy March winter relapse, it is finally safe to say that winter is over for Southwest and Southside Virginia, and spring – real spring, not premature spring we had in February – has begun.
But we shouldn’t overstate what it means to be spring.
At this point, there is no clear signal of runaway warmth or a resurgence of prolonged late cold as we move toward April. Rather, expect a progressive pattern with some warmer days, then showers before a cold front, then some cooler days, and gradually warming again. We’ll see that progression through this coming weekend.
Quite likely, your location anywhere between the Cumberland Gap and Cumberland County is not done with freezing temperatures.
Monday morning was probably the coldest we’ll see until next November or December, but average last freeze dates – the last date in spring it reaches 32 or below – across our region range from early April in Southside to as late as early-mid May in some higher elevation areas west of Interstate 77. And with a clear sky and calm winds, frost can form with temperatures a little warmer than 32 at official thermometers 6 feet above the ground, as cold air sinks to the ground level.
Your location may not even necessarily be done with seeing snowflakes. Anywhere west of Interstate 77 or Interstate 81, and anywhere at or above 3,000 feet in elevation, has a decent chance to see at least see some snow showers and flurries a time or two more behind the intermittent cold fronts into April, perhaps even a whitened ground in some places especially nearer the West Virginia line. (Click links here to see Bent Mountain in Roanoke County on April 18 and Tazewell County on April 19 last year for examples.)
It’s not unheard of to see some snow or graupel (grainy iced-over snowflakes, like small, soft hail) into lower elevations in April, either. One of my sons practiced baseball through intermittent snow and graupel in southwest Roanoke County last April 9.
Every once in a great while, a storm system in late March or April sets up in such a way during a narrow window behind a strong cold front or involving a cold bubble of air aloft with an upper-level low to plop more significant and widespread spring wet snow on our region, even amid a milder run. But chances for that decrease with each passing day, requiring something more and more extraordinary as the calendar moves from March to April.
Seeing substantial snow at elevations below 3,000 feet is a non-zero chance now, but it’s closer to zero than it is to anything far above 50%.
Gradually replacing snow in our weekly wondering will be thunderstorms, and when severe ones might occur.
It’s usually mid-May or later before it gets warm enough consistently enough, and therefore unstable enough on a regular basis, to expect thunderstorms frequently.
But, on the flip side, storm systems in late March through April tend to be more vigorous with lift and wind changes aloft than what we get toward late spring and early summer, and therefore can offer greater risks of thunderstorms with large or copious hail, damaging winds, or occasionally tornadoes.
Glade Spring, Pulaski, Lynchburg, Danville and southern Franklin County are among the locations hit by destructive and sometimes deadly tornadoes in April since 2011.
In the short term, it wouldn’t be out of the question to hear some thunder this weekend as a cold front pushes into warm air ahead of it. We’ll have to check conditions closer to the time to see if anything strong or severe might be possible in our region. Severe weather, at least as much as snow, is hard to pinpoint more than a day or two in advance.
Spring is not about “getting warm and staying warm,” as many wish it was, but rather rolling up and down a temperature roller coaster that gradually rises on average toward the higher end of the thermometer, but can still take a stomach-churning dip from time to time with some rumbly rattles in between.
First day of spring low temperatures
Somewhat ironically, the first day of spring on the calendar brought the coldest temperatures our region had generally seen since Feb. 4.
Of course, it should make some sense that Monday’s lows will probably be the coldest temperatures of the spring, coming on the earliest day, but it doesn’t often work out exactly that way.
Here is a listing of Monday’s lows from coldest to warmest at various sites across Southwest and Southside Virginia:
Burkes Garden, 9
Grayson Highlands State Park, 10
Bald Knob (near Mountain Lake), 11
Bluefield, W.Va., 13
Rocky Mount, 17
Tri-Cities Airport (Tennessee, near Bristol), 17
Meadows of Dan, 22
South Boston, 22
John H. Kerr Dam, 30
Near-record warm winter
What made the mid-March cold spell even more notable than perhaps it otherwise would have been was the preceding blazing warm winter.
At the major climate stations across our region, it was held out of contending for being the warmest winter on record by a pretty cold December that had an extremely cold outbreak near Christmas. The 1931-32 winter, often the leader among sites in our region, did not have such a cold outbreak to lower the average (until March, which for climate records, starts counting as spring on March 1).
While the single warmest winter in our region happened over 90 years ago, it is worth noting there has been a clustering of sorts of milder winters over the past couple decades, as these summaries list. It would take an analysis far more rigorous than this mere listing to determine mathematical significance and make any connection to large-scale climate trends on such a local level, but it does fit the general idea of what would be expected with global climate change.
(You can reread the last part of my initial Cardinal Weather column in October for how I will approach discussion of climate change/global warming here, which will not include any discussion of politics or policy, just regional weather data.)
Following is a listing of the National Weather Service’s designated major climate stations in and very near Cardinal News territory for average temperature Dec. 1 to Feb. 28 and where it ranks historically and recently.
- Roanoke: 44.4 degrees F, second warmest winter on record, trailing 46.1 in 1931-32. Data begins 1912, with two winters missing 10 or more days. Six of the 13 warmest winters have happened since 2011 and seven of 13 since 2001.
- Danville: 44.3, third warmest on record, trailing 48.8 in 1931-32 and 45.8 in 1948-49. Data since 1916 but nine years missing 10 or more days of data. Six of 20 warmest winters since 2012 and eight of 20 since 2001.
- Lynchburg: 43.4, third warmest winter on record, trailing 47.8 in 1931-32 and 43.7 in 1948-49. Data begins 1892 with four winters missing 10 or more days. Five of 20 warmest winters have happened since 2011.
- Blacksburg: 39.1, third warmest among those missing fewer than 10 days of data, trailing 43.2 in 1931-32, 40.9 in 1949-50. (41.4 in 1948-49, but 13 days of data missing). Data since 1892 but 12 years with 10 or more days missing. Three of 14 warmest winter since 2015.
- Bluefield, W.Va.: 39.1, sixth warmest since records became regularly kept in 1942, with 42.7 in 1949-50 leading the pack. Only two winters are missing 10 or more days of data since 1942, none since 1956, and none ranking above 2022-23 in warmth. Six of the 10 warmest winters on record and eight of 17 warmest have happened since 2004.
- Tri-Cities Airport, Tennessee (near Bristol): 43.7, tied for third warmest winter since 1942, none missing more than two days of data. 1949-50 at 45.1 and 1948-49 at 43.8 lead this winter, with 1956-57 tied with this winter. Seven of the 15 warmest winters have occurred since 2011.
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.