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It has been a year, so far, with almost no winter and a summer only sluggishly stumbling off the starting block.
Finally, there has been summerlike hot, humid weather in recent days, dotted with thunderstorms. Lynchburg recorded its first 90-degree high of 2023 on Sunday, the fifth latest first 90-plus degree high on record in the Hill City.
But there are already signs that mid-July will revert back to the cooler-than-normal trends of two prior months. While summer heat has its fans, many will not complain about summer not being broiling – although, during this particular summer, cooler temperatures are served with a side of Canadian wildfire smoke.
Now that 2023 has made the turn, it’s a good time to take a look at some predictions – reasonably educated guesses of a longtime regional weather observer – on what may happen with our region’s weather in the final six months of the year.
“Weather forecasters have it easy,” wrote Cardinal News executive editor Dwayne Yancey in making six political predictions recently. “They can get up-to-the minute radar reports as storms move across the landscape.”
Well, here are some predictions that are out of the range of radar, and for which primary results, public polling and campaign finance reports provide no help, though these may be no less “hunches” than Mr. Yancey’s political prognostications.
1. 2023 will be among 10 warmest years on record in our region.
The first six months of 2023 rate as the second warmest such period on record at Roanoke (56.6-degree average, trailing only 57.2 from 2012) and seventh warmest at Lynchburg (55.7 degrees, trailing leader 1939 by half a degree). These are a couple of locations with more than 100 years of records and few large missing data gaps, but it is among the warmest first six months of a year on record at several other locations around the region also.
From a statistical standpoint, and perhaps somewhat counterintuitively by perception, it is not the summer months that make the most difference in how far a year can finish above normal in average temperature, but rather, the cooler months.
That’s because there is a much wider range between the coolest and warmest average temperatures on record in late fall to early spring than there is in summer. At Lynchburg, for instance, going back to 1893, the difference between the warmest and coolest Augusts on record based on average temperature is not quite 11 degrees, while it’s more than 25 degrees for January. Warmer weather in cooler months has more room to lift average annual temperatures.
A mild January and blazing warm February gave 2023 average temperatures such a head start that even a cooler May and June than normal have barely slowed the statistical pace. Blacksburg had its coolest June since Jimmy Carter was president, but the first six months were still the ninth warmest first half of a year among 114 on record with 10 or fewer days of missing data.
To really cave in the average from being on the high end historically, there would have to be predominantly cooler than normal averages the rest of 2023 and maybe a month or two that are much below normal. Just one month several degrees above normal down the stretch might lock in a high-ranking year.
Considering statistical trends, recent years that tilt more to having warmer months rather than cooler ones, and large areas of warm land and sea temperatures likely heading toward a global temperature record (El Niño, climate change), this looks likely to be among the 10 warmest years at most if not all sites in our region with at least a century of data.
If we have another runaway warm period like February, 2023 being the single warmest year on record at some or many locations in our region would not be shocking.
2. There will be few if any 100-degree days in the 2023 summer.
It doesn’t have to be 100 degrees to be dangerous, especially on days with 90s temperatures and 60s or 70s dew points. But it’s a good bar for marking our region’s truly extreme heat, infrequent in elevations below 1,500 feet, very rare in those above it.
In the past decade, there has been only one 100-degree day at Roanoke and none at either Lynchburg or Danville. We have not had a run of extreme heat with multiple 100-degree days in our region since that around and after the 2012 derecho.
There are already signals the northwest flow pattern that kept much of June cool resumes by the second week of July and possibly longer, which would often bring cooler than normal temperatures (and something else, see next section).
The principal “heat dome” high-pressure system has set up well west of our region to start summer, mostly over Texas, and it doesn’t typically like to move around a lot in midsummer once it gets set. El Niño summers historically are not among the hottest in our region – though there is a 1987 exception and also a few short-lived extreme hot spells in some other El Niño summers.
So never say never, but this summer right now just doesn’t appear to have what it takes for a long or extreme run of heat in our specific region.
While I wouldn’t rule out a stray triple-digit day somewhere like the John H. Kerr Dam in Mecklenburg County – which seems to be to summer heat in Cardinal News territory what Burke’s Garden in Tazewell County is to winter chill – I don’t really expect any 100-degrees days for places like Danville, Martinsville, Bristol, Roanoke, Lynchburg, anywhere north of Roanoke and Lynchburg, and almost definitely not Blacksburg or anywhere west of there.
If that Texas heat dome expands north toward the Great Lakes and then southeast toward us at any point, this prediction could become toast quickly.
3. Periods of smoke will recur until at least October.
Back in the ozone haze days of the late 20th century, we would see air quality worsen under stagnant, hot high pressure, then cold fronts from Canada would bring refreshing breezes and brush out the haze.
This summer, it’s exactly the opposite, as northerly wind vectors from Canada bring in smoky haze and hot high-pressure domes expanding from the west and southwest push it out, as finally happened this past weekend.
The problem is that scores of uncontained wildfires are now scattered almost coast-to-coast in the northern portions of Canada’s provinces.
Any air mass originating from Canada is going to bring the smoke down – northwest winds behind a cold front, north winds circulating around a low-pressure system to our northeast or even an offshore tropical system, or those “wedges” of cool air from the northeast that sometimes ooze down the eastern side of the Appalachians and bring us a cool, damp break from the heat.
The price for cooler temperatures this summer will be smoke. The price for the first few usually refreshing Canadian air pushes of fall will be smoke.
Eventually cold weather will overspread the northern latitudes of Canada and squelch the fires. Until then, occasional periods of bad air are just going to be part of our lives.
4. Rainfall will recover to a surplus by end of year.
Roughly two-thirds of locations in Southwest and Southside are running 1 to 4 inches below normal in rainfall through June 30. A few places, like Danville and many areas west of Interstate 77, have managed to creep above normal, which is near 22 inches, give or take a little, for lots of locations in Southwest and Southside Virginia for the first half of a year. But late May and late June rainy spells haven’t caught everywhere up yet, especially north of Roanoke.
El Niño is correlated with the frequent development of a strong subtropical branch of the jet stream across the southern U.S. during the cooler months. This moist flow can sometimes be diverted by other features, so it’s not a lead-pipe cinch that it rains a lot in our region during an El Niño. The Ohio Valley is typically left pretty dry in El Niño, and sometimes that can migrate eastward.
But the odds favor at least a reasonably wet pattern developing by fall and winter, and July at this point looks likely to be intermittently stormy. So, the prediction here is that most locations will be above normal in annual rainfall by about 2 to 5 inches as the ball drops the night of Dec. 31.
5. 2023-24 winter tops 2022-23 winter snowfall by Christmas.
Yes, this a very low bar, considering abysmally low snowfall totals for the previous winter, a few tenths of an inch to a little more than inch total at most locations, excluding some places along and west of the Interstate 77 corridor that got in one or two 2-to-4-inch “blizzards.”
But El Niño winters often start very quickly, with medium to larger snowstorms in December, as happened in 2002-03, 2009-10 and 2018-19. Though sometimes, they start out warm, like 2015-16, and save any winter wallops for later.
Even if December doesn’t start out gangbusters in the winter ahead, here’s betting it can find one briefly blocked pattern with a moist system or a random Alberta clipper for at least a couple inches of snow in most of our region by Christmas.
Hopefully snowflakes won’t be falling through clouds of smoke.
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.