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Virginia snow fans, you sacrificed your winter fun this year so parts of California could reverse years of historic drought.
Granted, it’s been too much of a good thing in too short a time, leading to a bevy of problems like flooding, mudslides and buried ski lifts. (Not an exaggeration.) Even tornadoes.
But the U.S. Drought Monitor maps for California are stark between late November and the most recent ones, with large sections of extreme and exceptional drought hollowed out entirely. While there are many short-term problems associated with getting so much rain and snow so quickly, California agriculture and water tables will benefit from recharged mountain snows melting in the warmer months ahead.
California’s snowfall of many feet in the mountains with snow levels that dropped into the hills around Los Angeles was very much the other side of the coin from the persistent atmospheric pattern that kept Virginia unseasonably warm in much of January and February and denied the Old Dominion even the most meager snowfall outside of a few narrow stripes mostly in the mountains until begrudgingly relenting a little bit in March.
Although it seemed to show up inconveniently every weekend — even a near-80 Thursday on February 23 was followed by 30s temperatures and rain on the Saturday two days later — there wasn’t really all that much rain, either. Aside from Dec. 22 and Feb. 12, most of our rain this winter was showery or drizzly, not widespread and soaking.
Even in a snowy winter, most winter precipitation in our region would fall as rain, and our mountains aren’t high enough to collect and retain deep snowpack that lasts into summer. Rainfall when green leaves aren’t umbrellas and roots aren’t sucking a lot of it out of the soil is a critical part of our region’s hydration cycle to keep water tables charged and help keep soil more moist for late spring and summer when the higher sun angle and hotter temperatures can dry things out more quickly.
The Western U.S. had the jet stream trough, or its deep southward dig, while the Eastern U.S. got the ridge, looping north around a large pile of slowly sinking air that deterred cold spells and the lift needed for precipitation. So, it’s not really a stretch to say Virginians gave up their snowfall and much of their rainfall for California, though of course, people on neither coast really had any say in the matter.
But did Virginia also miss out on moisture we’ll need down the road in months ahead?
Early returns do not look terrible, although a section of Southside Virginia has remained in the “abnormally dry” category on the U.S. Drought Monitor, sort of a “light drought” classification, throughout the winter.
Generally speaking, areas from Roanoke eastward have started 2023 from 1 to 3 inches below normal in precipitation, in the 5- to 8-inch range for total rainfall from Jan. 1 through late March. To the west, those deficits drop off quickly, and even turn into surpluses of rainfall for 2023 to date west of Interstate 77, with the Bristol area and Bluefield both well over an inch above normal.
Soil, stream and water table moisture does not reset at zero with the start of a year, of course. 2022 ended up a few inches on the wet side of the ledger, relative to normal, across most of our region, except for some locations in Southside, which partly explains why the yellow is still painted on the Drought Monitor map there.
The last time there were three consecutive years of La Niña, from 1998-2001, Virginia fared much worse with lack of precipitation, reaching historic levels of dryness in a couple of different waves of drought that continued another year until an El Niño kicked in with a cold, wet, snowy 2002-03 winter. This was when many reservoirs dropped several feet below their full stage, leaving cracked mud behind.
La Niña, the irregularly recurring cooling phase of equatorial Pacific sea surface temperatures, has what could be described as a “loose correlation” to milder, drier winters in much of Southwest and Southside Virginia.
That means that if you list the temperature averages and rain totals from the La Niña winters since 1950, you’ll tend to see more of the La Niña winters on the dry and mild side of averages.
There are too many exceptions (cold and super-snowy 1995-96, really wet 2020-21) with too small a sampling size (about two dozen examples dating to 1950), and some variance across the 350-mile width of Cardinal News coverage region, for this to be considered iron-clad in mathematical significance.
But since a strong southeast U.S. high pressure ridge that tends to deflect many cold air masses and potential wet or wintry storm systems to our northwest is a common feature of La Niña winters, it makes a lot of sense in a general atmospheric sense.
So far through winter and early spring, we have lacked the kind of storm systems that really scoop up Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic moisture and throw it over us for long, steady rains. Mostly, we’ve been getting fast-moving squally showers ahead of cold fronts.
When you hear of “atmospheric rivers” on the West Coast, that is indicative of a fast flow off the Pacific that doesn’t typically lead to deep-digging troughs in the East that bring prolonged rainfall, and it’s also often associated with troughs near the West Coast that end up pulling the main lift of storm systems well north and west of our region.
La Niña has expired, but if this present progressive pattern continues similarly, we’ll get some rounds of April showers (thunderstorms, sometimes) every few days that may bring May flowers, but we might still need a soaker here or there somewhere to ward off wildfire risk with some of the windy fronts and also to drench the soil a little better for growers’ interests headed into hotter summer months.
At this point, though, there’s no reason to think Virginia is headed into deep drought. Droughts are manifested on the hot side of the calendar but are really set up when it is dry in the cooler months. It has been drier than normal over about two-thirds of Cardinal News’ coverage area, but not drastically so.
Northern Lights in Virginia
Social media lit up on Thursday with scores of photos of the aurora borealis – from places you’d expect like Canada, Montana and the Dakotas. But also from places you wouldn’t, such as Arizona, New Mexico Oklahoma and, yes, Virginia.
Included with this piece is a photo by Virginia Tech meteorology student Justin Buchinsky, who was on Salt Pond Mountain (the one with Mountain Lake) in Giles County, and even got some lightning on the horizon in a distant thunderstorm over eastern West Virginia.
Other notable sightings captured on photos for social media (linked here) include Peter Forister’s at Shenandoah National Park, Billy Bowling’s at Lebanon in Russell County, Jason Rinehart’s from the Blue Ridge Parkway overlooking Buchanan in Botetourt County and way south of us near Asheville, North Carolina, by Evan Fisher. They had to get away from city lights to somewhere with an open north view to witness the spectacle (longer exposure photos show brighter colors than were visible with the naked eye, but it was still apparently quite amazing for those merely looking at it.)
The unusually vivid and extensive view of the Northern Lights was the result of a G4 geomagnetic storm (on a scale of 1 to 5), considered severe, caused when the sun emits an abnormal amount of charged particles and energy that interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field. Kasha Patel has a good recap and discussion of it in The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, linked here.
My only lifetime sighting of the aurora was even farther south than the latitude of southern Virginia, or even Asheville, near Marianna, Arkansas (southwest of Memphis and roughly the equivalent latitude as Greenville, South Carolina) in the early 1990s during a similarly strong geomagnetic storm.
I just happened to be driving north through flat, open agricultural terrain on a clear, unseasonably cold early November night, returning from covering a high school football game, when the northern sky lit up bright red for a few minutes. At first, I thought there might be a large fire somewhere up ahead, and expected to see fire trucks en route to it, but that never happened and the red glow dissipated. I later learned from media reports that what I had seen was the aurora borealis, and it had been widely seen across the region I was living in.
Solar storms can often be detected some hours before they affect the Earth but the intensity of them is difficult to discern until it is occurring. This one largely snuck up on “space weather” forecasters, but created a lifetime event for many viewers well south of the normal visual range for the aurora borealis.
Radar out of service
The National Weather Service’s Doppler radar serving the Blacksburg office’s forecast area – the radar unit itself is located in Floyd County – will be out of service through April 10 for important upgrades.
This will result in a a gap of coverage over much of our region, especially if you look at some regional composite radar views, although radar units serving surrounding weather service offices will cover it to some extent. Western parts of our region are covered more by radar serving the Morristown, Tennessee, and Charleston, West Virginia, forecast offices, while the one serving the Wakefield, Virginia, covers eastern parts of Southside.
Hopefully, this period will pass without any substantial inclement weather in the central parts of our region for which radar would be needed. Some showers and thunderstorms may occur in our region Friday and Saturday with the passage of a windy weekend cold front.
Also of note: Some temperatures near the freezing mark may occur west of the Blue Ridge and near the Interstate 64 corridor to the north on Thursday morning. We still have some weeks left when occasional freezing temperatures are normal. Take care of your tender plants accordingly.
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.