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Snow fans in Southwest and Southside Virginia are not happy after a winless 2022-23 season. They have a new coach named El Niño that may clear out last year’s weather pattern difficulties about like Deion Sanders cleared out the University of Colorado football roster. Will that bring on a winning winter for the dendritically involved? Or will winter haters’ dreams of El Niño injections of overwhelming subtropical warmth rule the season?
I’m not quite ready to make predictions or ask you to make them in the second annual Cardinal Weather snowfall contest. But let’s take a look at a few things we should keep in mind going into an El Niño winter.
El Niño refers to irregularly recurring warming of a stripe of equatorial Pacific Ocean. El Niño has been known about on the western coast of South America for centuries but has only been closely tracked about the last 75 or so. It has been found to have varying degrees of correlation to weather patterns around the world. In our region, there is a general tilt toward wetter than normal conditions and alternation between colder and warmer winters, depending on developments in the northern latitudes.
We’ll dig into more specifics of its strength, location and interaction with other oscillations later. For now, here’s five things to keep in mind, mostly about snow in our region, going into this El Niño winter. While many of the correlations mentioned are based on decades of observation, my specific examples are focusing mostly on the last 25 years, because that’s what many of you will remember best, and also to make it clear that these events have occurred even in a warmer global climate than was the case decades ago.
1. El Niño doesn’t guarantee anything.
El Niño is an important, influential feature in weather and seasonal climate around the world, with many known correlations and likely causations attributed to it.
But sometimes, it gets a little too much credit.
The presence of El Niño doesn’t lock in a cold, snowy winter for our region or anywhere in the East, as sometimes gets bandied around social media. Nor, conversely, does an especially strong or east-based El Niño, as some experts think this one will be, absolutely lock in a mild, rainy winter with little snow.
There are innumerable interactions with various climatic oscillations and changing atmospheric patterns to consider, let alone an incomplete understanding of all of El Niño’s effects, given a fairly small data set going back several decades.
So, what we have to go on are loose correlations among previous El Niño years, and while there are some common themes often leading to wetter winters, there is a large range of variance in weather results for our region.
Winter also lasts three months, with another 30-45 days on either side capable of winterlike weather. That is a lot of time for many different variations to happen, however overall averages or totals settle out.
2. That said, the correlation between El Niño and larger snow events is undeniable.
Four of the last five widespread foot-plus snow events that covered at least half of our region occurred during El Nino winters.
Put another way, four of the last seven El Niño winters – in 1997-98, 2009-10, 2015-16 and 2018-19 – have had a foot-plus snowstorm over half or more of our region.
One of the others, 2004-05, had a widespread 6-12-inch storm, and huge accumulations of snow with the President’s Day storm of February 2003 – the 2002-03 winter was a cold one with frequent light to moderate snowfalls – barely missed our region to the north, leaving us in sleet and ice. That leaves the 2006-07 winter as really the only one of the last seven El Niño winters with weak snowfall pretty much areawide (snow totals were very low east of the Blue Ridge in 1997-98).
The linkage between El Niño and large snow events goes back farther to include widespread foot-plus storms in February 1983 during one of the stronger El Niños on record, and on Christmas 1969 to cap an extremely snowy decade, among others.
It does seem to follow that the presence of El Niño increases the chances we could see a larger snow event in months ahead, but it doesn’t assure one.
3. Snowy winters are also rainy winters historically in our region.
If you want a lot of snow in most of our region, you really want it to rain a lot, too. That’s because even in an especially snowy winter, snow seldom accounts for more than half of the season’s precipitation, and often a third or less, excluding some of the highest elevations.
A prime example is the snowiest winter of the 21st century at many locations, in 2009-10, an El Niño winter with frequent northern-latitude blocking patterns forcing cold air south. Blacksburg and Lynchburg each topped 13 inches of total liquid precipitation, while Roanoke got nearly 15 inches. Historically high seasonal snowfall totals of 54, 35 and 43 inches, respectively, at those three locations, when melted down, accounted for only 5, 3 ½ and 4 inches of rain, or far less than half of the season’s precipitation. You may remember an all-day miserably cold rain on Christmas soaking into what was left of the Dec. 18-19, 2009, snowstorm.
The basic concept is that, to snow a lot, there have to be more wet storm systems than usual, only some of which will find the cold air necessary for snow. The others are mostly rain, sometimes beginning or ending as wintry mix or snow.
This may partly explain why El Niño winters tend to have some bigger snowfalls in our region. Most of the time, there is a greater frequency of wet systems, some of which may connect with cold air.
Not all rainy winters are snowy winters for Southwest and Southside Virginia, but almost all snowy winters are also rainy ones.
4. Flooding and tornadoes may be part of El Niño winter, too.
In February 2016, the region experienced a double-barreled winter storm of snow then ice on Feb. 15-16. Then, attention turned to another strong upper-level low arriving the next week, and there was early speculation that this might provide yet another winter storm. But as we got closer to time, it became more apparent the storm would track farther west and put us in its warm sector, with heavy rain and possibly rotating thunderstorm that could spawn tornadoes, given the storm system’s strong atmospheric shear.
On Feb. 24, that storm system spawned a long-track EF-3 tornado in Appomattox County, killing one person.
El Nino-linked winter weather patterns often bring some vigorous storm systems across the southern U.S., which can lead to a variety of weather hazards including flooding rains, severe thunderstorms and vicious winter storms – ice or snow – depending on their exact movement and the overall atmospheric pattern.
Leftover snowfall followed by heavy rain can also be a hazard, as happened in late February 2003 with widespread river flooding.
Don’t be surprised as we get into the winter ahead if we’re flirting with snow and ice one week and talking about possible tornadoes or flash flooding the next.
5. The perception of winter will come down to two or three episodes.
For all the pre-winter talk that occurs every year about whether this will be a cold, snowy winter or a mild one, the lasting perception of this winter will come down to how two or three short-term events play out, not the average temperature or total snowfall across three months.
Cold winters with many small snows, like 2002-03, get forgotten if they don’t have the big 8+ or 12+ type storms. Overall mild winters are viewed entirely differently if they have one or two of those bigger snow events, as was the case with 2015-16.
Winter from a weather communication standpoint is sort of like a baseball game, where inning after inning may go by with little action, then suddenly, wild pitches, errors, hits against the wall, storms circling the bases, and then, sometimes, the grand slam home run snowstorm.
A virtual no-hitter like last winter is highly unlikely based on historical statistics alone. But figuring out the nature of this coming winter will be a week-to-week discovery, not something fully uncovered ahead of time by the presence of El Niño.
I’ll still be asking you to take some guesses in a few weeks.
First freezing temperatures
Clouds and wind keep chilly temperatures from being perhaps as widespread as they easily could have been on Sunday and Monday mornings, but clear skies and calm winds did break through a few sub-freezing temperatures in elevated areas this past weekend.
Meadows of Dan in Patrick County dropped to 26 degrees on Sunday morning, while Copper Hill fell to 28. Many locations saw mid to upper 30s temperatures both Sunday and Monday morning.
Higher elevations of eastern West Virginia like Snowshoe Mountain and Canaan Valley saw their first snow showers of the season on Sunday. It is highly possible a few flakes blew over into some of the higher mountains of Virginia near the West Virginia border.
Speaking of El Niño, a wet storm system streaming across the South similar to what we would expect in an El Niño cool season is making its way across the Gulf Coast region.
Another vigorous storm system is due to move east from the Upper Midwest across the Ohio Valley to off the coast of the Northeast.
The problem for those seeking rain to ease growing dryness in many parts of our region is that Southwest and Southside Virginia are expected to be left between the two systems, with only light to moderate showers by Friday and Saturday.
There is still time for this forecast to change toward more rain, but at this juncture it is not looking likely. The presence of a southern U.S. storm system like this, however, may be a harbinger of things to come as we move deeper into this El Niño fall and winter.
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.