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Weather Journal: The 21 winters of the 21st century, mildest to wildest
WEATHER JOURNAL

Weather Journal: The 21 winters of the 21st century, mildest to wildest

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Since all four digits rolled over to the 21st century, there have been 21 winters in the Roanoke and New River valleys.

They have been about as varied as possible. One nearly snowless winter and one with epic snowfall. Cold winters with frequent snow; cold winters with little snow; mild winters with little snow; and mild winters with surprisingly large snowfall.

Climate trends suggest winters as a whole are a little warmer and a little less snowy, on average, in recent decades, but the year-to-year variation can be as wide as ever.

Rather than rely solely on my own subjective memories, I have come up with an index to rank the winters we have experienced thus far in the 21st century, from mildest to wildest.

The index is the sum of four variables: (1) the total snowfall rounded to the nearest inch; (2) the lowest temperature of the winter subtracted from 32 degrees; (3) the total days of measurable snowfall; and (4) the number of days with lows below 20 minus days with highs above 60.

The first three variables are for the entire cold season, from fall to spring, while the days below 20 minus days above 60 variable is only for meteorological winter, December to February — 60 degrees isn’t that unusual in November or March, after all. (And yes, having more days above 60 than days below 20 results in a negative number that pulls down the index score).

I haven’t calculated this index for all winters on record yet, but a quick review of a few exceptional 20th century winters, for comparison to scores below, shows the warmest winter on record, 1931-32, scoring -10 and the coldest on record, 1977-78, also pretty snowy with 37 inches, scoring 124.

The index is geared to Roanoke statistics, though the summaries below take in the surrounding region also. The rankings would be in a similar order for most surrounding areas, though the numbers would vary.

On this cold Wednesday before Thanksgiving, with potential for a holiday week storm system having withered, here’s a sleigh ride down memory lane for recent winters.

(20, tie) 2019-20There’s something about pandemics and dud winters. It wasn’t totally snowless like 1918-19 and 1919-20, but almost, snowing only on Jan. 7, but not much farther east than Roanoke. The 1.6 inches rounds up to 2 for the index, but it was really the first time in 29 years Roanoke didn’t have at least one snowfall of 2 inches or greater.

Snow: 2 inches. Lowest temperature: 17 (32-17=15 points). Days of snow: 1. Days below 20: 4. Days above 60: 20. (4-20=-16). Total index score: 2.

(20, tie) 2011-12What was the second warmest winter on record at the time (43.2-degree average, still third, going back to 1912) produced our region’s most popular snowstorm ever. On Feb. 19, 2012, 5-8 inches of snow collected at 32-33 degrees on the Sunday before Presidents Day, wedged between 60-degree weather on either side. That miraculously salvaged something pretty good for snow lovers, but, after postcard-quality tree-lacing scenes, mostly melted before noon the next day to please winter haters.

Snow: 6 inches. Lowest temperature: 19 (32-19=13 points). Days of snow: 3. Days below 20: 5. Days above 60: 25. (5-25=-20) Total index score: 2.

(19) 2001-02

It poured snow one Saturday morning, Jan. 19, before changing to sleet, totaling 3.5 inches, in an otherwise forgettable, often-warm winter.

Snow: 4 inches. Lowest temperature: 14 (32-14=18 points). Days of snow: 3. Days below 20: 5. Days above 60: 26. (5-26=-21). Total index score: 4.

(18) 2016-17

Winter was here and gone in a flash, with a couple of single-digit mornings and a 3-6-inch snowfall in early January. February topped 70 six times to push the winter to second warmest on record (43.6-degree average).

Snow: 5 inches. Lowest temperature: 9 (32-9=23 points) Days of snow: 3. Days below 20: 8. Days above 60: 24. (8-24=-16) Total index score: 15

(16, tie) 2006-07

You know it’s a weak winter when an Alberta clipper delivers the only significant snowfall — 3 inches at Roanoke, more to the north, less to the south, on Feb. 6.

Snow: 3 inches. Lowest temperature: 10 (32-10=22 points). Days of snow: 2. Days below 20: 14. Days above 60: 21. (14-21=-7). Total index score: 20.

(16, tie) 2007-08

It only snowed once, but it was bigger than forecasts. Moisture overrunning cold air on Jan. 17 ended up being a 3-5-inch snow in the area rather than the forecasted 1-2 before ice.

Snow: 5 inches. Lowest temperature: 11 (32-11=21 points). Days of snow: 3. Days below 20: 8. Days above 60: 17. (8-17=-9). Total index score: 20.

(15) 2005-06

A coastal storm on Feb. 11 dumped 20 inches — on New York City. Here, it was 4-7 inches. Some early light snow/sleet in December and a cold February with lots of mild days in between.

Snow: 10 inches. Lowest temperature: 13 (32-13=19 points). Days of snow: 8. Days below 20: 3. Days above 60: 17. (3-17=-14) Total index score: 23.

(13, tie) 2020-21

Even a Grinch heart would surely grow a size or two at having a white Christmas amid the pandemic and political turmoil of late 2020. Otherwise, last winter might be ranked No. 1 on a frustration scale. Frequent light to moderate precipitation, always flirting with the freezing mark, flummoxing forecasters, breaking jilted snow lovers’ hearts with messy mixes instead of big plops, and irritating winter haters with constant cold wetness.

Snow: 10 inches. Lowest temperature: 15 (32-15=17). Days of snow: 13. Days below 20: 4. Days above 60: 11. (4-11=-7). Total index score: 33.

(13, tie) 2008-09

It took till March 1 to get the ingredients together for a bigger winter storm, with 3-7-inches across the Roanoke and New River valleys and even more not far east. In retrospect, that storm seemed to break a 3-year snow dearth and hint at what was to come the next winter.

Snow: 4 inches. Lowest temperature: 3 (32-3=29 points). Days of snow: 5. Days below 20: 14. Days above 60: 19. (14-19=-5). Total index score: 33.

(12) 2012-13

A winter that was mostly mild (41-degree average) but pretty snowy hung around past its welcome for many, with a half-foot on Palm Sunday (March 25) and again in some parts of the NRV on April 4. Roanoke got an inch on April 4 and hit 90 degrees just six days later. Feb. 7-8 was an odd quirk, when the “snow hole” Roanoke Valley got 3-5 inches while everywhere else around got very little.

Snow: 18 inches. Lowest temperature: 16 (32-16=16 points). Days of snow: 12. Days below 20: 8. Days above 60: 19. (8-19=-11) Total index score: 35.

(11) 2018-19

Winter laid the hammer down early with a Nov. 15 ice storm in higher elevations and a Dec. 9 snowstorm that was the earliest foot-plus snowfall on record for our region. Then, it was pretty much over, other than a couple of light snow-to-ice episodes on Jan. 12 and Feb. 20.

Snow: 20 inches. Lowest temperature: 9 (32-9=23 points). Days of snow: 7. Days below 20: 7. Days above 60: 18. (7-18=-11). Total index score: 39.

(10) 2004-05

An unremarkable winter of small snows until 8 inches fell on Feb. 28, 2005, Roanoke’s biggest snow in nine years, with 6-12 common across the region.

Snow: 16 inches. Lowest temperature: 8 (32-8=24 points). Days of snow: 10. Days above 60: 22. Days below 20: 12. (12-22=-10). Total index score: 40.

(9) 2010-11

A Hallmark-quality white Christmas, with snow starting before sunrise and resuming in the afternoon, 3 inches at Roanoke and 4 inches at Blacksburg. Otherwise, a cold winter that could never get the pieces together for a bigger winter storm, best exemplified by the Jan. 25 bust when Roanoke and Blacksburg each got fractional amounts during a winter storm warning.

Snow: 10 inches. Lowest temperature: 10 (32-10=22 points). Days of snow: 11. Days below 20: 10. Days above 60: 12. (10-12=-2). Total index score: 41.

(8) 2000-01

Nearly identical 3-5-inch snowfalls on Dec. 19 and Feb. 22 in a cold, dry winter with a warm spell in the middle. The second of those snows triggered a 20-car pileup on I-81 in Rockbridge County.

Snow: 8 inches. Lowest temperature: 10. (32-10=22 points). Days of snow: 6. Days below 20: 22. Days above 60: 12. (22-12=10). Total index score: 46.

(7) 2015-16

A 13-inch snowstorm on Jan. 22-23 followed by 8 inches on Feb. 14-15 locally defied the “Year Without a Winter” label nationally. It was blazing warm through Christmas, reasonably cold much of January and the first half of February, then warm again at the end with a deadly tornado not far east in Appomattox County.

Snow: 23 inches. Lowest temperature: 9 (32-9=23 points). Days of snow: 7. Days below 20: 17. Days above 60: 18. (17-18=-1). Total index score: 52.

(6) 2017-18

Wild swings from the coldest first week of January on record (17.6-degree average) to the warmest winter temperatures on record (84 at Roanoke, 80 at Blacksburg on Feb. 22, 2018) to three winter storms in March. The first two were almost identical, textbook winter storms with widespread 3-6-inch amounts on March 10-11 and March 20-21. The third was weird: A narrow northwest-to-southeast stripe of 10-18 inches through the New River Valley and Blue Ridge south of Roanoke on March 24-25, dropping rapidly to 2 inches at Roanoke and nothing a few miles north.

Snow: 16 inches. Lowest temperature: 4. (32-4=28 points). Days of snow: 10. Days below 20: 22. Days above 60: 21. (22-21=1). Total index score: 55.

(5) 2003-04

Cold winter with periodic small to medium winter storms, fairly similar to the preceding winter that is ranked No. 3. The biggest storm was early, as snow lasted longer than expected before changing to ice on Dec. 6-7, dumping 6-8 inches in the Roanoke and New River valleys.

Snow: 22 inches. Lowest temperature: 11 (32-11=21). Days of snow: 9. Days below 20: 14. Days above 60: 10. (14-10=4). Total index score: 56.

(4) 2014-15

Of the Feb. 21, 2015, winter storm, in Weather Journal: “When it snows half a foot in the Roanoke Valley and less than an inch in much of Floyd County, you know it’s an oddball winter storm. Throw in avalanches, ice accumulating with air temperatures several degrees above freezing, flooding and roof collapses in the same county and a weird patchwork of precipitation types defying our geographical norms, and Saturday’s winter storms stands out as a unique one for Southwest Virginia.” The last half of February was an absolute Arctic slam with three significant to heavy snowfalls and the coldest temperatures of the 21st century to date (0 at Roanoke, below-zero just about everywhere around).

Snow: 22 inches. Lowest temperature 0 (32-0=32 points). Days of snow: 9. Days below 20: 20. Days above 60: 12. (20-12=8). Total index points: 71.

(3) 2002-03

A seemingly forgotten hard winter, standing apart in the 1997-2009 “snow drought” period, lacking only a “big one” — that narrowly missed, as the President’s Day II storm buried Northern Virginia but encased us in a hard shell of sleet and ice. Early December and early February produced storms with similar 4-8-inch amounts, but it’s the March 30 snowstorm of 6-9 inches the morning after 70s highs, breaking many heavily leafed trees, that is the best remembered.

Snow: 25 inches. Lowest temperature: 8 (32-8=24). Days of snow: 13. Days below 20: 16. Days above 60: 5. (16-5=11). Total index score: 73.

(2) 2013-14

A cold winter with one huge snowstorm — the biggest snow of the young century so far on Feb. 12-13, 2014, with 18-24 inches common, memorable for a backside wallop that added the last 5-8 inches in just a few hours on Feb. 13 with snowfall rates of 2-3 inches per hour. “Record-breaking snow held Southwest Virginia captive Thursday,” the front page of The Roanoke Time declared.

Snow: 28 inches. Lowest temperature: 1 (32-1=31). Days of snow: 9. Days below 20: 23. Days above 60: 12. (23-12=11) Total index score: 79.

(1) 2009-10

Was there any doubt this would be No.1? Essentially the dream winter for modern snow fans, and the nightmare of nightmares for winter haters. It lacked extreme low temperatures but made up for it with persistent cold weather that enabled snow to stay on the ground most of the winter (a runaway record 73 days of snow cover at Blacksburg), more like the Northeast than the South. The 18-inch Dec. 18-19, 2009, snowstorm was the region’s first widespread foot-plus storm in nearly 14 years. and two 10-inch snowstorms came a week apart on Jan. 30-31 and Feb. 6-7. The only winter of the 21st century so far that can really be considered in an elite class with the coldest, snowiest half-dozen or so from the 20th century.

Snow: 43 inches. Lowest temperature: 11 (32-11=20). Days of snow: 12. Days below 20: 14. Days above 60: 5. (14-5=9). Total index score: 84.

Contact Kevin Myatt at kevin.myatt@roanoke.com. Follow him on Twitter @kevinmyattwx.

Contact Kevin Myatt at kevin.myatt@roanoke.com. Follow him on Twitter @kevinmyattwx.

 

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Since 2003, Kevin Myatt has penned the weekly Weather Journal column, and since 2006, the Weather Journal blog, which becomes particularly busy with snow. Kevin has edited a book on hurricanes and has helped lead Virginia Tech students on storm chases.

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