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History doesn’t exactly repeat itself where our regional weather is concerned, but the stanzas often rhyme.
Following that line of thinking, our Southwest and Southside Virginia coverage area, and by extension the entire state of Virginia, is in a similar, though not identical, place in October 2023 as we were in October 2002.
All of the state was in drought and much of it in severe to exceptional drought in October 2002, the second wave of extraordinary drought that started in 1999, following a dramatic flip from a strong El Niño in the 1997-98 winter to a strong and persistent La Niña over three years from the 1998-99 winter through 2000-01.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because we just finished a three-year run of La Niña, through 2020-21, 2021-22 and 2022-23 winters. It flipped suddenly to El Niño by summer and now as we approach the 2023-24 winter, whereas in the early 2000s, there was a “neutral” season in 2001-02 that seemed like an extra year of La Niña for its winter weather before the new El Niño started.
El Niño refers to the irregularly recurring warming of a stripe of equatorial Pacific Ocean surface water temperatures, while La Niña is its cold-water opposite. Generally, El Niño is linked to wetter weather patterns on the cooler end of the calendar for our region, with variations in temperature, while La Niña is linked to milder and drier winters, though there are enough exceptions to keep either generalization from being across-the-board statements in all cases.
About two-thirds of Virginia is in at least the lightest stage of drought currently, with moderate to severe drought over much of the state west of the Blue Ridge and north of Interstate 64, though now poking as far south as Franklin County in our region of coverage. This has been a serious, agriculture-affecting drought in the Shenandoah Valley region, make no doubt, though it is not as widespread or quite as extreme as the drought in October 2002.
It was about this time in the latter half of October 21 years ago when the long-term dryness started breaking. Juicy storm systems riding across the Southern U.S. in succession delivered multiple bouts of widespread significant to heavy rainfall across Southwest and Southside Virginia, with 1-3 inches of rain common across the region on Oct. 15-16 and Oct. 28-29, and a couple of somewhat lesser widespread rains in between.
Presently, we are not seeing anything similar to that same kind of wet pattern developing. No widespread rain appears likely for our region at least into early next week. Low-pressure troughs and cold fronts that have moved through on occasion in the last couple of weeks have been too far north to tap the Gulf of Mexico for dense moisture, so rainfall has tended to be lighter and showery. We are not yet seeing the El Niño-typical juicy southern branch of the jet stream.
But 21 years ago, after weeks of that southern branch of the jet stream bringing one rainy storm system after another – one of them in early December a significant winter storm of 4-10 inches of snow with ice on top – Virginia’s 2002 drought had entirely been erased by January 2003.
A 2023-24 winter parallel to 2002-03 would excite a lot of snow fans, though at least for the Southwest and Southside Virginia coverage area of Cardinal News, it isn’t one of those oft-remembered epic winters.
Much like now, the previous winter had been an extremely mild one with little snow and there had been several prior mostly low snowfall winters.
The preceding winter in 2001-02 was the last time the Bristol area went through winter with no snow accumulation – 0.6 was reported at the Tri-Cities Airport across the line in Tennessee this past winter – with nearby Abingdon’s total of 1.5 in 2001-02 matching what fell this past winter. Roanoke and Lynchburg were near 4 inches in 2001-02 and Blacksburg near 7 inches, on the low end of historic expectations but much more than 0.4, 0.5 and 1.3 inches that fell at those sites this past winter.
The winter of 2002-03 is one of those that tends to be overlooked or forgotten in the annals of our regional weather, even though it resulted in above-average snowfall across much of the region and more persistent cold than we’ve seen in all but a couple of winters since the turn of the century. The snows came in small to medium doses, with the season’s big “President’s Day II Storm” or “PDII” missing our region to the north with its car-swallowing dumps. Some of the northern fringes of our area near Interstate 64 got 6-10 inches of snow-sleet mix, with a harder-shelled inch or two of sleet and capped by glaze ice farther south over most of Southwest and Southside Virginia.
Still, many locations from Lynchburg westward went over 20 inches of snow for the season in 2002-03, some over 30 inches from Blacksburg westward. It would have been among the epic winters historically if PDII had been farther south.
The 2002-03 winter – expanding the term “winter” into early spring – may be best known in the western half of our region for a March 30 dump of 6-12 inches of wet snow on heavily leafed trees along and west of the Blue Ridge. This came after several weeks of warm weather starting with a snowpack-melting heavy rain in late February that sent the Roanoke River to its ninth highest crest on record nearly 6 feet above flood stage in downtown Roanoke. March’s warmth, following the copious moisture and nitrogen-rich snowfall of the 2002-03 winter, got everything blooming and greening very quickly. Then one coastal storm formed with a deep dip in the jet stream and dumped tree-breaking slush on the leafed-out limbs.
So here we are in the last quarter of 2023 seeing if anything similar kicks in with a new El Niño and if history will repeat itself, or at least slant-rhyme with 2002-03.
Frosty to almost hot this week
Many locations over the western half of our region saw their first freezing temperatures early this week, with Burke’s Garden in Tazewell County dropping as low as 25 on Tuesday morning. Just about everywhere in Southwest and Southside Virginia saw temperatures at least in the 30s earlier, with patches of frost occurring.
But, by Friday and Saturday, high temperatures in the 80s are possible in the lower elevations of the Roanoke Valley and east of the Blue Ridge. Some record highs for the date could be set.
This won’t last long, with cooler weather again next week – but no sign of rain presently.
You may have needed coats a morning or two early this week, but shorts will make a return for the weekend. Be prepared to bundle a little for trick-or-treating next Tuesday.
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.