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UPDATE: For the latest on the weekend coastal storm, see Kevin Myatt’s Thursday evening post.
So, when does summer end?
A) Autumnal equinox.
B) August 31.
C) Labor Day.
D) First day of school.
Any of those can be correct answers depending on your point of view. Certainly C – Memorial Day to Labor Day defining summer – and D are often the perception from a cultural standpoint. We’re going to focus here on A and B, the shift from summer to fall on the astronomical and meteorological calendars, respectively.
The autumnal equinox, the point at which the sun appears to be directly overhead at the equator, is Saturday. That will begin autumn, or fall, on the astronomical calendar, which is what the one with pretty photos tacked to your wall follows.
This particular autumnal equinox looks likely to be graced by a robust coastal storm that may soak part or all of our Southwest and Southside Virginia region, a storm a bit more like we expect near the vernal equinox in March, and also one that may harbor hints of what to expect in the fall and winter months ahead. We’ll get back to that.
Meteorologists, largely for statistical convenience, cut the seasons off even with calendar months. Summer is then, simply, June 1 to August 31 on the meteorological calendar, while fall is September 1 to November 30.
We are already almost three weeks deep into autumn on the meteorological calendar. It’s a good time to take a look back at summer – including who won the Cardinal Weather heat prediction contest – before moving on.
But first, let’s take a look at this coastal storm.
Coastal storm may dampen weekend
When it’s September on the calendar and we see a tightening low-pressure system near the Southeast U.S. coast, the first thought that usually arises is it’s something tropical, possibly a hurricane. But the storm system developing the remainder of this week may not be tropical at all, or perhaps it will acquire only some partial tropical attributes – becoming “subtropical,” possibly named if it does and carries 39 mph sustained winds.
This storm will be a coastal low-pressure system forming along the boundary between differing air masses, rather than rapid rotation forming first just above the warm sea surface and spiraling upward as the core of tropical systems do.
It is more of a cold-season type of system than a tropical one. Possibly, this holds a clue to what we may see in months ahead, and haven’t seen much in recent years, with atmospheric patterns more conducive for low-pressure systems tracking along the East Coast, as colder air masses sliding southward later in fall and winter come in contact with warmer air masses over rather hot sea surfaces.
(UPDATE FRIDAY PM: As was previewed in an article posted to Cardinal News on Thursday evening, the core of the coastal storm ended up being able to feed on the warm water of the Gulf Stream on Friday and develop a sufficient warm core to become Tropical Storm Ophelia. Sustained winds of 70 mph were only 4 mph short of hurricane status late Friday, with some chance it would arrive on the North Carolina coast as a minimal hurricane.)
If this is the case – and it often is when El Niño conditions are present in the equatorial Pacific – the coming winter may be an entirely different animal than the last almost non-existent one, with a heightened chance of significant winter storms. But that isn’t set in stone. Just keep it in the back of your mind for now as a possibility this development may hint toward.
Focusing more on the here and now, this coastal low, depending on its exact track and intensity, may mean a soggy Saturday over at least part of our region. The farther east you are in Virginia, the more likely you are to see substantial rainfall on Saturday, possibly arriving in the overnight hours Friday.
It could yet be that this system swings or expands far enough west for widespread rain of an inch or more over most of our region (southwest corner may get exempted) or that it slides just enough east to only brush Southside with light rain. At this point on Wednesday, almost three days before its effects begin to be felt, a middle-ground forecast seems to be in order with heavier rain of an inch or more over much of Southside and Central Virginia (and very likely for Hampton Roads, the Eastern Shore, areas near Chesapeake Bay, and anywhere along the coasts of the Carolinas), light to moderate rain under an inch backing up to near the Blue Ridge, dwindling out to eventually nothing farther west over Southwest Virginia.
Monitor forecasts in days ahead for possible changes to this, especially if you have weekend outdoor plans. (I will be posting on @KevinMyattWx on X/Twitter and at Kevin Myatt’s Weather Wonders on Facebook as things get more refined). It would be a good idea to start developing rainy day backup plans for Saturday if you are east of the Blue Ridge, for sure, and to at least think about them farther west.
(There’s a good chance the North Carolina State at Virginia game in Charlottesville on Friday evening gets in dry. Virginia Tech is at Marshall at the western edge of West Virginia on Saturday, likely out of the rain, so no repeat of the Sept. 9 deluge. Liberty is traveling far south to Florida International near Miami on Saturday, so outside the main effects of this storm but with the typical south Florida chance of showers and storms.)
Another element of Saturday’s coastal storm, whether or not it rains much where you are, is that it will kick up some increased winds, out of the northeast (hence the term nor’easter) with its counterclockwise circulation. Gusts up to 30 mph appear to be a good chance over much of our region, maybe 40 mph in higher elevations and in eastern parts of Southside.
The net effect of northeast breezes and intermittent or continuous rain is a raw day in which temperatures get stuck in the 50s and 60s. Saturday may well end up feeling more like a late October day than late September.
Virginia largely skipped the heat wave
The hottest June-August period on record globally and ninth hottest for the contiguous 48 states of the U.S. was not even close to being among the hottest on record in our backyard.
This should in no way lessen broader concerns about a warming global climate — just be thankful for your regional exception to most of the extreme heat in this particular summer.
Virginia and much of the Eastern U.S. were affected by northwest wind flow in a jet stream trough more often than we were under the heat dome high-pressure ridge this summer. This is generally consistent with what has often happened in other summers when El Niño has been present in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, as few of those summers are among our region’s hottest.
The heat dome to the west expanded over us in late July and in late August (then again once more the second week of September after meteorological summer had ended) for a few days where a handful of locations reached the mid to upper 90s (John H. Kerr Dam in Mecklenburg County hit 100 on July 29), but each time the heat was quickly put in check by northwest flow from Canada and a renewal of the Eastern U.S. trough.
At Danville, it was tied for the seventh coolest summer on record going back to 1917 (not counting 13 summers with more than 10 percent of days with missing records), averaging 74.8 degrees. Danville hasn’t had a cooler summer since 2004.
It was also the seventh coolest summer on record going back to 1909 just across the state line at Bluefield, West Virginia, where the city famously offers free lemonade whenever it hits 90 degrees (which it hasn’t since 2013, getting no higher than 86 this summer). Bluefield, averaging 67.8 degrees, hasn’t had a cooler summer since 1982.
It was the 12th coolest summer on record going back to 1930 at Wytheville (68.6), tied for the 12th coolest going back to 1938 at Martinsville (72.6) and tied for the 18th coolest going all the way back to 1889 at Lexington (71.7).
At Abingdon (72.3), Appomattox (73.6), Burke’s Garden (64.7), Lynchburg (73.8), and Wise (68.5), it was among the coolest one-third of summers within periods of record ranging from 53 to 130 years. It was just barely outside the coolest one-third for the Tri-Cities Airport station (73.4) across the border from Bristol and near the middle of the pack for Blacksburg (69.8). Except for only being the coolest since 2019 at Abingdon, it was the coolest summer since years ranging from 2003 to 2017 at all those locations.
Of 11 locales in Southwest and Southside Virginia and two in nearby border regions analyzed here, only one – Roanoke – managed to finish among the top third of warmest summers on record. The Star City’s 75.8 average was the coolest for summer since 2017, but it was tied for 27th warmest among all summers going back to 1912. Summer 2023 was warmer than all but 12 June-August periods on record in the 20th century, with 14 summers since 2000 having been warmer than this past one.
A subject for a later day: How a strong urban heat island effect is decoupling the Roanoke sensor’s temperature trends from those elsewhere in the region.
Drought and deluge juxtaposed
In two decades of writing about weather in media and social media for readership areas of varying size within the southwest quadrant of Virginia, I never recall another summer in which so many readers were saying “We need rain” and “Please make it stop raining” at the same time.
The experience with rain this summer varied widely across our region. Very generally, the farther south or east you were within our region, the more rain you got, while the farther north and west areas were at times on the lip of drought. There were localized exceptions to these trends, however.
For Appomattox, east of Lynchburg in central Virginia, it was the third wettest summer on record going back to 1938, with 23.87 inches of rainfall. For Wise in the southwest corner of the commonwealth, it was the second driest summer going back to 1955, with 7.97 inches of rain.
Most places in between were somewhere more toward the middle of historic rainfall, though Martinsville experienced its seventh wettest summer going back to 1938 with 18.81 inches of rain. Despite the extreme July downpours Lynchburg experienced, 20 other summers since 1893 had more than the 17.03 inches of this June-August period in the Hill City.
Blacksburg was toward the drier end, with its 23rd driest summer since 1893 at 9.23 inches – but a September Saturday has offset that dryness and then some. Most of the 11 locations in our region examined for this column fell in the 10 to 13 inch range, pretty close to long-term norms.
Serious drought is continuing just north of Cardinal News’ coverage area in the Shenandoah Valley west to the Allegheny Front of eastern West Virginia, with dried-up creeks and rivers and serious impacts to agriculture.
Though it would mess up a lot of people’s weekends across Virginia, it would be a blessing if this weekend’s coastal storm could sling substantial rain all the way back into the northwest part of Virginia.
Summer heat prediction contest winner(s)
My first summer heat contest for Cardinal News ended up in a seven-way dead heat.
But I only have one gift card to give out, and the tiebreaker was announced to be whichever tied entry I received first.
First, here is the list of the 12 sites in the contest and the hottest temperatures of the summer at each one: Abingdon 92, Appomattox 93, Blacksburg 90, Clarksville 96, Danville 97, Galax 90, Lexington 94, Lynchburg 95, Martinsville 95, Roanoke 96, Wise 89, Wytheville 90.
The winners of the contest, who all nailed the temperature exactly for the site they each picked (listed in parentheses), were Mike Vellines of Christiansburg (Blacksburg), Jerry Burgess of Fincastle (Wise), Pam Caudill (Wytheville) and four who picked 96 successfully for Roanoke: Charles Weidner, George Kosko of Hollins, Diane Washenberger of Roanoke and Janice Weaver of southwest Roanoke County. (Weaver is a past winner of one of my snowfall prediction contests in The Roanoke Times, by the way.)
The gift card goes to Kosko, who sent his entry within 3 hours of the contest being announced on Cardinal News on May 31. But all seven can consider themselves winners.
The summer heat contest was a dry run for some ideas I have for a revamp of the much more popular snowfall prediction contest, to include more regional sites and focus more on snowfall totals than date of first snowfall. I haven’t fully formulated how that contest will run, but I will tell you now it will not be just picking for a single site, and any tiebreaker will have something to do with weather, not when an entry is sent.
Look for that to be announced around mid-October, near the anniversary of my weather column’s move to Cardinal News.
Journalist Kevin Myatt has been writing about weather for 20 years. His weekly column is sponsored by Oakey’s, a family-run, locally-owned funeral home with locations throughout the Roanoke Valley.