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Residents of almost every state fancy their patch of real estate as being globally unique in having the most changeable weather possible, sending out memes like “Only in (name of state)” and “if you don’t like the weather, just wait 15 minutes.”
This week, many states in the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. – including Virginia – experienced the kind of temperature vertigo that inspires such bold though misguided claims of local weather extremes supremacy. Truly summerlike temperatures are collapsing into winterlike cold in a couple of days, making a mockery of the calendar that insists October has just flipped to November.
A hard freeze is expected across virtually all of Southwest and Southside Virginia on Thursday morning, ending the growing season for any parts of the region that did not see a freeze Wednesday (when some locations west of the Blue Ridge saw their first snow showers) or in other brief cold episodes during October. Some outlying rural areas west of the Blue Ridge could drop into the teens, with 20s just about everywhere else.
We’re most likely done with mid to upper 80s for the rest of 2023. The occurrence of those kind of temperatures in late October was quite historic, the first time since early in the 20th century at several locations.
Roanoke hit 88 degrees on Saturday. That was impressive enough as the hottest Oct. 28 on record, beating out 1919, which had a similar late-October heat spike across our region. But, most amazingly, it was the hottest day Roanoke has had later than Oct. 19 in any year since the start of official records in 1912. Roanoke set another daily record with a high of 87 on Sunday.
Lynchburg’s 86 on Sunday set a new record for Oct. 29, while Blacksburg’s 79 tied its record. South Boston in Halifax County and the John H. Kerr Dam in Mecklenburg County also managed to reach 87 this past weekend.
Just outside Cardinal News’ main coverage area, Charlottesville reached 89 degrees on Saturday – 2 degrees warmer than Miami, where the University of Virginia football team was playing an away game.
While temperatures similar to August norms are likely over for 2023, it would not be surprising at all if something resembling the warm-to-cold shift we just had repeats itself a few times in the late fall and winter ahead.
We’ve discussed the presence of El Niño – the irregularly recurring warming of a stripe of equatorial Pacific sea surface temperatures – and its possible effects on winter ahead. (See stories linked here and here and here). It’s also been cautioned that, sometimes, El Niño gets a little too much credit. Very generally, El Niño injects extra warmth into the global climate system and, for our region, is linked to wetter winters – often, not always – with temperatures varying greatly from one instance to another.
Whether talking about changeable natural oscillations like El Niño or something more systemic like global climate change, the injection of heat into the atmosphere doesn’t mean it gets warmer everywhere all the time. Instead, extra warmth can tend to make atmospheric patterns more volatile, with both taller ridges (warm high-pressure) and deeper troughs (dips of cold air) in the jet stream, sharper thermal contrasts along boundaries, and greater moisture transport farther away from warmer oceans.
With several climate oscillations seeming to point in different directions for the atmospheric potential ahead, there may be substantial volatility in atmospheric patterns. That may all lead to a recurrence of quick warm-to-cold and cold-to-warm shifts, and could cause large and powerful storm systems that can at different times provide the potential of heavy rain (part of which would be welcome in our region with ongoing widespread dryness and scattered wildfires), severe storms, gusty winds and winter storms containing snow and/or ice.
For instance, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation is in a negative phase with cooler water south of Alaska. Generally, this favors a western trough (cool, wet weather) and an eastern ridge (warm, dry weather). But we’ve also seen the North Atlantic Oscillation shift into its negative phase repeatedly in the last few months, with blocking high pressure near Greenland, which favors the opposite pattern, with a western ridge and eastern trough.
And what to make of the effects of a record warm Atlantic Ocean? Could that manifest with a strong high-pressure ridge off the Southeast U.S. coast that deflects storm systems and cold air masses northwest away from our region, or will it be more of a North Atlantic ridge that crinkles the jet stream southward over the Eastern U.S. leading to more cold and snow?
Some big questions and uncertainties entering winter, but one pretty good bet is some wild up-and-down swings as there is atmospheric tug-of-war between competing patterns.
We’ll see that in days ahead with a fairly quick warmup after this week’s chilldown – though not back to upper 80s – followed by the arrival of another cold front a week to 10 days deep into November.
The combination of dry conditions, amplified by falling leaves and dried-out brush adding fuel, plus gusty winds both with the warm and cold temperature shifts has led to at least three large wildfires in western Virginia.
What has come to be known as the Parrott River Road Fire along the Pulaski-Giles county border on the western side of the New River had burned almost 300 acres as of Tuesday evening, according to Pulaski County Emergency Management. Cooler temperatures, higher humidity and a brief lull in winds helped crews increase containment of it on Tuesday with hopes of having it fully contained on Wednesday. It is expected to burn almost 500 acres by the time it reaches control lines.
Another fire burned almost 100 mountainside acres near New Castle in Craig County.
The Quaker Run Fire has burned over 500 acres along the Blue Ridge in Madison County, north of Cardinal News’ main coverage area.
These are “woodland fires” not true “forest fires,” mostly burning vegetation along the ground and blackening tree trunks rather than jumping treetop to treetop, as many Western wildfires do, and some in the East do in extraordinary dry and windy situations. It is fairly typical for some of these type of woodland fires to break out this time of year, and there are some benefits to forest ecosystems of occasional brush fires, but these have been fairly large and fast-spreading due to recent dry conditions.
Cooler and damper conditions have helped crews better contain these fires as of Tuesday, but there is yet to be a solid signal for a soaking rain or the frequent El Niño-linked pattern of repeated storm systems moving across the Southern U.S. on the horizon.
Until there is heavier or more consistent rainfall (or snowfall), wildfires will continue to be among the concerns as windy cold fronts move through between warm, dry periods.
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.