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A crude coastal storm may rise from anonymity and earn a Shakespearean tropical name, but that won’t make the tempest much more dramatic or turn it into a tragedy for Southwest and Southside Virginia.
Rainfall spun inland by the coastal storm could, in fact, be quite the blessing for parts of western Virginia in moderate to severe drought.
The National Hurricane Center now projects that the northward-moving coastal low-pressure system will, at least for a short time, become a full-fledged tropical storm, which means its core rotation will be drawing its main energy from the latent heat of evaporated and condensed water vapor off warm oceans, despite the storm starting out as a more conventional low-pressure system forming along a boundary between air masses with upper-level spin aloft translating to the surface.
If a sufficiently tight, warm, closed-off rotational core is detected with sustained winds of at least 39 mph, it will be named Subtropical Storm or Tropical Storm Ophelia.
Really, the storm getting a tropical name will only be a difference in semantics, as a strong non-tropical coastal low, a hybrid “subtropical” storm combining non-tropical and tropical elements and a low-end tropical storm with some atypical structure will all deliver about the same winds, waves and rain over a large area of the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic. Storm surge may reach up to 5 feet along the North Carolina coast and perhaps 2-4 feet in Hampton Roads and along the Eastern Short, with a 1-3 foot surge potentially pushing into Cheasapeake Bay. Heavy, locally flooding rain is expected along and east of the Interstate 95 corridor in Virginia. Winds may gust to near 50 mph at times near the coast.
For Southwest and Southside Virginia, there is a range of expectations across the region from west to east. The southwesternmost part of the state, west of about an Abingdon to Tazewell line, may see no rain at all. Eastward to Interstate 77, some showers may dampen things early Saturday.
Areas of Southside and Central Virginia east of U.S. 29, the highway linking Danville, Lynchburg and Charlottesville, are likely to see a good amount of rain, possibly exceeding 1 inch in many areas, maybe 2+ the farther east you get closer to Richmond.
The area between U.S. 29 and Interstate 77, including the Roanoke and New River valleys, the Blue Ridge and the western Piedmont, is the sticky wicket, as forecast model depictions of the storm’s track, intensity and breadth continue to vary.
Best guess as of Thursday evening is that Saturday morning brings a steady rain as far west as the Blue Ridge from Galax to Roanoke, then along the I-81 corridor up to the Lexington-Buena Vista area, with some periods of light rain farther west across the New River Valley. Amounts will probably stay mostly under an inch but there could be some upslope enhancement along eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge, and of course areas farthest east near Lynchburg, Bedford, Smith Mountain Lake and Danville have a better chance of slipping into the inch-plus amounts.
This is still a fluid forecast, so pay attention to the National Weather Service and local media for possible changes that could lead to more widespread and/or heavier rainfall.
Winds will pick up out of the north to northeast in most of the region with the clockwise circulation of the low passing to our east, possibly topping 30 mph gusts at times especially in eastern parts of Southside and in higher elevations.
As the low moves north along the coast of North Carolina to near the Hampton Roads area, rain may start to slacken or become more intermittent from the southwest once the low lifts past your location’s latitude, as some drier air will begin filtering into the southwest quadrant of the circulation field.
For outdoor activities, Saturday is likely a washout in Southside, but doable in Southwest Virginia west of Interstate 77. In between, it’s touch and go, easily slipping toward either direction, but likely at least damp, windy and relatively chilly, temperatures stuck in the 50s and 60s.
The latest Drought Monitor shows moderate drought conditions extending southward to Botetourt and Bedford counties and just east of Roanoke, so a more substantial rainfall would be welcome by many. Parts of the Shenandoah Valley of northwest Virginia remain in severe drought — there is a pretty good chance some bands of rain rotate into that region on Saturday.
There may be another chance of widespread rain toward the middle to latter part of next week, with seasonable to somewhat warm temperatures in the days in between the rain events.
Journalist Kevin Myatt has been writing about weather for 20 years. His weekly column, appearing on Wednesdays, is sponsored by Oakey’s, a family-run, locally-owned funeral home with locations throughout the Roanoke Valley.