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Wednesday, March 27, 2013
So, how would you feel if the spring snow that fell Sunday and Monday were followed by another in about two weeks?
That’s exactly what happened in 1971.
Southwest Virginia was hit by twin spring snowstorms on March 25 and 26 and April 6 and 7, even bigger than the one that defied the season and whitened our ground with 3 to 7 inches of snow on Sunday and Monday.
Roanoke’s snowfall total in each 1971 event was exactly the same: 7.3 inches. Blacksburg, meanwhile, got a little less in the first one (6 inches) but a little more in the second (10 inches).
But early spring 1971 was not the unseasonably cold blast we’re experiencing this season, as strong high pressure systems near the North Pole and Greenland are forcing Arctic air unusually far south into the central and eastern United States this late March.
The high temperature soared to 73 at Roanoke the day after the March 1971 snow, and was in the 60s or 70s every day but one between the snowstorms. Then, the day after the April snow, it hit 66.
Many of you would gladly take that now, as snowpack dwindles a lot more slowly than it normally would in early spring, and cold winds and snow showers continue to blow over the mountains. Another day similar to the last two is on tap today.
Almost every spring has a few snow showers for us. Most springs have some accumulating snow at the highest elevations, and it’s not terribly uncommon to get a dusting on a cold spring morning down into some lower elevations.
Widespread snows of several inches are infrequent visitors for Southwest Virginia in spring, but when they happen, the seasonal contrast between warm and cold air can fire strong storm systems that can quickly plop down a lot of wet snow.
The biggest spring snow in the last half-century for the Roanoke and New River Valleys occurred on March 22-23, 1981, when Blacksburg got 13 inches — its latest foot-plus snow on record — and Roanoke got 9 inches.
Most residents in our area remember the March 30, 2003, snowstorm. It dumped 6 to 10 inches of snow on a Sunday morning after weeks of warm weather. Heavily leafed and blooming trees were quickly bent and many broken.
We didn’t have much of a problem with that this time, owing to lighter amounts and a cold March not allowing much budding and blooming of vegetation.
Both storms in 1971 and those in 1981, 2003 and this past weekend shared one characteristic in common — a low pressure system just off the coast of the Carolinas. That location allows cold air to be pulled around the back side of the low into Western Virginia.
This time around, the storm system was more complex, with another low pressure center to our west. By itself, the western low would have probably meant only rain, but its effects of sweeping in milder, moist air were countered by the counterclockwise rotation around the coastal low.
Another spring snow hit early in April 1987, but it followed a different path, with the low moving inland through Virginia rather than offshore. The heaviest snow was shoved that much farther west by the inland track. While about half a foot fell locally, some parts of far southwest Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia piled up 1 to 2 feet.
An unusual spring snowstorm affected the New River Valley and higher elevations of the Blue Ridge in late April 1978, while Roanoke saw none.
It was primarily a heavy rain storm, with 4 to 7 inches that led to the Roanoke River’s third highest flood on record. But for a time, it became cold enough for snow to reach the ground at some 2,000-foot-plus elevations, with 6 to 10 inches in some of the areas west and southwest of Roanoke.
Perhaps that storm would be worth a look back all on its own in a few weeks, once we get past this patch of displaced winter.
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