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If you think the likes of Florida Atlantic and San Diego State busted your March Madness bracket, imagine the wreckage wrought by a nearly snowless winter on the first Cardinal Weather snowfall prediction contest.
Yet, there was a clear and obvious winner among 228 entries. Read through to the end of this column to see the winner, runners-up and honorable mentions revealed and a full recap of how the snowfall contest turned out.
But first, we had some intense weather in parts of Southwest and Southside Virginia on Thursday worthy of a more seasonally relevant discussion.
Last week’s discussion of marginal and slight risks of severe thunderstorms, as defined by the Storm Prediction Center, proved timely as part of our region near and east of the Blue Ridge was upgraded from marginal to slight last Thursday morning.
Thunderstorms developed along and just east of the Blue Ridge in northwest North Carolina northward to just west of Smith Mountain Lake on Thursday afternoon, in response to an upper-level disturbance preceding a cold front, with daytime heating and terrain influences also contributing to the storm development.
Rather than form a line and move eastward from the outset, there was just enough atmospheric shear present that individual storm cells remained mostly separate, developing supercell structures with weakly rotating updrafts. These storms moved east-northeastward toward Central and Southside Virginia.
One particularly noteworthy storm moved across Bedford County into Campbell County south of Lynchburg. This cell underwent a split, indicative of changing wind speeds with height in fairly uniform wind direction.
One piece of the storm drifted north toward Lynchburg and weakened, typical of the “left-mover” in most (but not all) similar storm splits. But the southern piece intensified, as is often the case, moving more due eastward (a “right-mover”) than the previous east-northeastward path of the parent cell, with a counterclockwise rotation tightening in its updraft.
The more rapidly rotating updraft separated further from the storm’s downdraft as inflow winds increased, allowing raindrops to be carried high into the frigid layers of the atmosphere repeatedly to form large hail, as large as 2.5 inches in diameter near Gladys in Campbell County. Chris Manley, a weather enthusiast from the Rustburg area, observed the storm near Gladys and captured images (a couple included with this article) and videos of hail and storm structure.
The storm developed visible rotation with a deep lowering on its southwest flank, as Chris White, a Roanoke-based storm chaser whose work often appears on WDBJ (Channel 7), captured on video farther east in Charlotte County. A tornado did not form (though it looked like it was trying in this photo by White), likely because there wasn’t sufficient low-level shear or instability to allow a circulation to reach the surface. Winds at the surface were out of the south to south-southeast ahead of the storm, as opposed to an east wind that would have tightened the circulation even more with sharper veering to west-southwest winds high aloft. Those inflow winds were also quite weak.
The supercell continued eastward toward Amelia County, where storm chaser and natural phenomenon photographer Peter Forister, of Charlottesville, captured images of the storm with many striations similar to something that would occur on the Great Plains.
There were several other storms that day, eventually fusing into multicell clusters rather than discrete supercells, with many reports of wind damage and hail an inch or more in diameter. But the storm tracking from Campbell to Amelia counties appears to have been the peak storm of the day, and a reminder once again how intense but localized severe storms can be.
Winter to summer, again
Most locations in our region saw temperatures at or below the freezing mark on Sunday and/or Monday mornings – the Easter snap, as some would call it in days gone by. But temperatures are quickly bouncing back, with many 80s highs expected on Thursday, and mostly 70s and 80s into next week.
While passing periods of showers and maybe a few thunderstorms may occur late this week into early next week, no weekend soaker is anticipated – and this time around, in contrast to what has seemed the norm even through our mild winter, no weekend chill-out is coming, either.
While having a warm and not-waterlogged weekend would be welcome by many for outdoor activities, it is becoming obvious a more soaking rain may be needed at some point this spring. Last week’s Drought Monitor map showed the eastern two-thirds of Virginia in light to moderate drought, something that has been expanding after the commonwealth as a whole has experienced its eighth driest March on record.
This relates to the next subject as the overall atmospheric pattern hasn’t changed much since winter, with more vigorous storm systems continuing to be deflected well west and north of the region (though one wet low from the Gulf of Mexico is actually staying mostly south of us on Friday).
Snowless snowfall contest
Entrants could choose any two of six different National Weather Service major climate stations in and very near Southwest and Southside Virginia to project when the first 1-inch snow would occur and the total number of inches for the season between Dec. 1 and March 31.
The problem was that five of the six sites never had a first 1-inch snow. Only Bluefield, West Virginia, had any snowfalls of an inch or more, the first happening on Dec. 23. Blacksburg got close on Feb. 2 but fell two-tenths of an inch short at 0.8. Roanoke, Lynchburg, Danville and Tri-Cities Airport, Tennessee, never really got close to a 1-inch snowfall.
So, by that fact alone, 227 of 228 entries whiffed entirely on an entire category for one or both sites they chose.
That left one entry as the champion: Hasan Shamim, a 21-year-old college student from Sterling, Virginia, who correctly guessed that neither Roanoke nor Tri-Cities would have a 1-inch snowfall this season.
For his forecasting prowess, Shamin gets a $25 gift card and the notoriety of a Northern Virginian coming in to beat everyone who entered from Southwest and Southside Virginia in a contest focusing on our own region.
The “zero pick” wasn’t a new approach. In the 13 snowfall prediction contests I ran while writing the Weather Journal column for The Roanoke Times, using only Roanoke and Blacksburg as sites to predict, almost every year there was someone who went for no snow at both sites.
It’s a gamble even in a weak snowfall winter because any 1-inch snowfall at either site would essentially eliminate the “zero pick” entry. Dec. 23, Jan. 8, Jan. 13, Feb. 2, Feb. 12 and March 12 brushes with snow in our region just couldn’t deliver as much as an inch at five of the six official measuring sites.
This was the first time the “zero pick” worked – congratulations to Hasan!
Beyond Hasan, there were three other entries that can be considered runners-up.
For the purposes of this contest, seasonal snow totals round to the nearest whole number. As a result, final snowfall totals were 9 inches at Bluefield (9.3), 1 inch for Blacksburg (1.3), 1 inch for Lynchburg (0.6), 1 inch for Tri-Cities (0.6) and 1 inch for Danville (0.5 – halves round up) and zero for Roanoke (0.4).
Raymond Whittaker of Lexington, Massachusetts, formerly of Pulaski County, got the Danville part right – no first 1-inch snow and a season total of 1 inch. He missed by 4 inches for Roanoke, projecting 4 inches when Roanoke got zero, and of course, there was no first 1-inch snowfall so that was a total miss.
The total score is normally derived from adding the number of days missed on the first 1-inch snowfall guesses to the number of inches missed on the snowfall totals at both sites, with the lowest score winning, like golf. But with every entry but one missing infinitely on at least one entire category, the scoring system is rendered almost moot.
So Whittaker’s score would be 4 – with the caveat of one entirely missed category.
Two entries from school-age participants actually scored lower than 4 but with two entirely missed categories.
Maisy Oyler of Andrew Lewis Middle School in Salem projected 2 inches for Blacksburg and 1 inch for Roanoke, each missing by 1 inch for a total score of 2 – with both first 1-inch snowfall categories blitzed.
Deacon Burrows of Van Pelt Elementary School in Bristol picked 2 inches for both Tri-Cities (the site closest to Bristol) and for Blacksburg, each missing by 1 inch for a total score of 2 – with both first 1-inch snowfall categories blitzed.
Other honorable mention picks that got at least something right:
· Kevin Wills of Blacksburg picked the Dec. 23 first 1-inch snowfall date for Bluefield.
· Camren Sanders of Andrew Lewis Middle School in Salem successfully picked the 1-inch season total for Blacksburg.
· Carter Biscotte of Andrew Lewis Middle School in Salem also correctly picked Dec. 23 as the first 1-inch snowfall date for Bluefield.
· Brayton Kennedy, Miracle McCormack and Alex Smith of Van Pelt Elementary School in Bristol each correctly picked 1 inch total for Tri-Cities Airport. Brayton nearly scored another hit projecting Feb. 1 for Blacksburg’s first 1-inch snowfall – as noted earlier, Blacksburg barely missed 1 inch the next day.
As we discussed before the winter, seasonal snowfall varies dramatically from year to year in our region. While there is evidence pointing to milder and/or less snowy winters becoming a bit more frequent in recent decades in our region, likely linked to rising global average temperatures, the year-to-year variation in snowfall even in very recent winters is quite large, and likely will continue to be based on shifting seasonal weather patterns.
Just over the past 14 years, Blacksburg, for example, has ranged from 1 to 54 inches of snowfall in a season, and has gone 31, 22, 5, 24, 15 and 1 for total inches of snowfall in the past six winters.
Just as a baseball game often comes down to a few at-bats with runners on base, so do winter’s regional snowfall fortunes usually come down to a few atmospheric setups. This winter, there were especially few such opportunities with the persistent southeast U.S. high-pressure ridge deflecting storm tracks well to our north and west, delivering epic snowfall to much of the western U.S. and the northern tier west of the Great Lakes.
Still, had the Dec. 23 polar jet stream dug southward faster, had Feb. 12 been a couple degrees colder a mile up, had March 12 had a richer flow of moisture, this wouldn’t have been a near-shutout snowfall season.
But it’s that seasonal variability and situational uncertainty that make it worthy of a contest that hundreds have entered for over a decade in The Roanoke Times and in Cardinal News.
I plan to come back next winter (we’ll see if snow likewise comes back) with another snowfall prediction contest, perhaps with some format changes to include more regional locations.
And watch next month for the first Cardinal Weather summer heat prediction contest.
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.