Climate of Virginia

"Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get"

Mean Daily Average Temperature
Mean Daily Average Temperature
(note how the average temperature on Virginia's coastline differs from the average temperature in the mountains along the western edge)
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): Climate Atlas of the United States

Virgnia is a four-season state. August days in Virginia can be - on the average - hot and humid, while January days can be cold and dry. The warmth in the air in early Spring, and the chill in the air in the Fall, "feel" different from other seasons. That's the climate pattern. However, if you're planning an outdoor event for any particular day in August or January, you'll have to check the weather report within a few days of the event to know the temperature and chance of precipitation for that one day.

Climate is defined by long-term averages. In contrast, weather is what's happening now. Weather changes rapidly within 24 hours, but climate changes gradually over the decades. It requires many measurements to document if we are trending towards an ice age or global warming.

Climate is measured in 30-year averages known as "climate normals." The 1961-1990 normals and the 1971-2000 normals are different, because the climate shifted slightly. The National Weather Service has divided the continental United States into 344 climate divisions, with six in Virginia, to document monthly temperature and precipitation values.

there are six climate divisions in Virginia: 1) Tidewater, 2) Eastern Piedmont, 3) Western Piedmont, 4) Northern, 5) Central Mountain, 6) Southwestern Mountain
there are six climate divisions in Virginia: 1) Tidewater, 2) Eastern Piedmont, 3) Western Piedmont, 4) Northern, 5) Central Mountain, 6) Southwestern Mountain
Source: National Climatic Data Center, Climate Data Online

The Virginians paying the most attention to climate change may be on the coastline, anticipating sea level rise - but the operators of ski resorts are also concerned. As the climate warms, the capacity to offer good skiing before the Christmas holidays becomes less reliable and the ski resorts have to emphasize summertime hiking, zip lines, etc. Just to the west of Winchester, Canaan Valley (West Virginia) gets 100 inches of snow annually. That helps to support looooooooong ski seasons that are the envy of ski resort owners less than 70 miles away in Virginia. The Virginia ski resorts get 25-50% of that total, and must manufacture snow at Massanutten, Bryce, or Wintergreen.

winter storms from the Great Lakes and Gulf Coast drop 100 inches of snow annually in West Virginia's mountains (redder zones indicate greater snowfall)
winter storms from the Great Lakes and Gulf Coast drop 100 inches of snow annually in West Virginia's mountains (redder zones indicate greater snowfall)
Source: National Weather Service Baltimore/Washington Forecast Office, Normal Annual Snowfall Map

On average, it rains or snows in Virginia for roughly 110 days each year. The number of overcast days, is greater, especially in the winter when grey clouds cover the sky for days at a time. (Colorado cities advertise that the sun shines 300 days/year, but that claim is based on the sun being visible for just one hour/day. Denver gets less than 16 inches of rain each year, but precipitation can be measured there nearly 90 days/year on average.)1

Statewide averages will not help in planning a backyard picnic, but do provide a base for comparing Virginia with other places and for comparing places within Virginia. The Shenandoah Valley is relatively dry, a "rain shadow" getting only 33" of rain each year as storms soak the mountains on either side. In contrast, the higher elevations in southwestern Virginia get over 60" annually. Storms moving west-to-east have their moisture squeezed out as Virginia's mountains force air masses higher, where cooler air triggers condensation and rainfall.2

the heaviest rains ever recorded in Virginia from a tropical cyclone occurred in Nelson County in 1969, when Hurricane Camille was slowed by the Blue Ridge
the heaviest rains ever recorded in Virginia from a tropical cyclone occurred in Nelson County in 1969, when Hurricane Camille was slowed by the Blue Ridge
Source: National Weather Service, Hurricane Camille - August 16-21, 1969

Storms totally ignore political boundaries. When it rains in Bristol, the sun is probably shining in Chincoteague. Hurricane Floyd dumped 17 inches of rain on Williamsburg on September 16, 1999, but the city of Roanoke received just 1 inch of rain. The city kept its water restrictions in place, since Carvin's Cove reservoir was still 25 feet below the spillway, but Roanoke County's Spring Hollow Reservoir (near Salem, just a few miles away from the city reservoir at Carvin's Cove) received enough runoff from its watershed to supply sufficient water all summer for county residents.

Based on the averages since 1885, it would appear Virginia is getting hotter and wetter.

trend of average annual temperature in Virginia, 1895-2010 (red line indicates average temperature is increasing by 0.5°F per century)
trend of average annual temperature in Virginia, 1895-2010
(red line indicates average temperature is increasing by 0.5°F per century)
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Climatic Data Center Temperature, Precipitation, and Drought Time Series

trend of average annual precipitation in Virginia, 1895-2010 (red line indicates precipitation is increasing over 2
trend of average annual precipitation in Virginia, 1895-2010
(red line indicates precipitation is increasing over 2" per century) Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Climatic Data Center Temperature, Precipitation, and Drought Time Series

Key factors that shape Virginia's climate, aside from global weather patterns and latitude, include:
  1. the Atlantic Ocean/Gulf Stream
  2. the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains
  3. the state's complex pattern of rivers and streams

Virginia has a "temperate" climate. According to the climate classification system developed by Wladimir Köppen and refined by Glen Trewartha, Virginia's climate has a "mild mid-latitude" climate, and is in the subcategory of "Humid subtropical." It is coded "Cfa" on the Köppen classification system because the climate is mild, with no dry season and a hot summer.

The Food and Agriculural Organization map shows other countries where the average temperature of the coldest month is <18°C and >-3°C, and the average temperature of warmest month exceeds 10°C. The green zones are places that have at least 30 millimeters of precipitation in the driest month, so the vegetation in those places will be comparable to Virginia.

The sub-tropical part is easy to understand - because we get frosts, we're not tropical. However, if you've ever been in Virginia through a summer, you know it's not the heat, it's the humidity that makes the summers "sticky."

The humidity is what people in Tidewater discuss most often in the summer. East of I-95, the Potomac/Rappahannock/York/James rivers and their tributaries drain to the Chesapeake Bay, providing plenty of water to evaporate in the summer sunshine.

Warm temperatures with high relative humidity make it difficult for moisture to evaporate from the skin. Before air conditioning appeared in the 1930's and then became common after World War II, the best way for Virginians to escape the heat was to retreat to mountain resorts.

temperate climates
Source: United Nations Food and Agriculural Organization (FAO), New gridded maps of Koeppen's climate classification

Highland County's name reflects its elevation. Moist air drops in temperature 3.3 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1000 feet higher in elevation (the adiabatic lapse rate). If you climb 3,000 feet in elevation, on the average the air will be 10 degrees cooler. Because cooler air holds less moisture, a human body can cool off easier through evaporation.

When people in Arizona say "it doesn't feel like 100 degrees, it's so dry out here," they are referring to the ability of evaporation to cool off a body. The same cooling effect is available in the mountains of Virginia. Until the 1900's, Tidewater residents traveled to the resorts at Mountain Lake, The Homestead, White Sulfur Springs, and other higher-elevation, lower-humidity vacation spots with ceiling fans.

In contrast, the modern summer vacation destination of many summer vacationers from Richmond is a cottage at Virginia Beach or along a Tidewater river. Much of Virginia Beach's modern popularity reflects the ubiquitous availability of air conditioning in stores, movie theaters, and homes

The New River Valley in Virginia is attracting retirees due in part to its climate. Northern residents who retired and moved from the Snow Belt to Florida are returning to a place with seasons. The retirees may not want to return all the way back to harsh winters, however, so they choose to settle in an area that is both north of Florida and higher in elevation. Those who settle in places like Asheville (North Carolina), Blacksburg, and Roanoke are known as "halfbacks" who made it only halfway back to their old home.

rainfall map of Greene County
"isohyets" (lines of equal precipitation) showing effect of
Blue Ridge Mountains on precipitation patterns

Jimmy Buffet has suggested that we can change our attitude by changing our latitude. The reverse is also true - our personal comfort zone can be based on maintaining the same latitude.

When the state's economic development agents encourage companies from Korea and Japan to open facilities in Virginia, they describe how the company's managers can deal with the cultural differences - and one positive factor is that Virginia has a similar climate to "home."

Latitude alone does not determine the weather patterns or ecology of a place. Follow the original Virginia/Carolina border (the 36° parallel of latitude) eastward across the Atlantic Ocean. England is far north of its old colony of Virginia. Sailors who settled the first two English colonies in North America sailed from Plymouth (north of the 50th parallel of longitude) and London (north of the 51st parallel of longitude) to Jamestown, just north of 3736° latitude.

The early English colonists did not sail due west to Virginia. If they had tried sailing due west in a straight line, they would have ended up in Canada, north of the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in Labrador and Newfoundland - where the Vikings first settled in North America.

The English colonists first sailed south towards the Equator, then they turned west.

The 36° parallel, the southern border of Virginia after Carolina was chartered initially, crosses through the Straights of Gilbraltar, south of Spain where modern Clementine oranges are harvested each September. The parallel goes across Malta, south of Italy, Greece and Turkey, and through Tehran in Iran and Mosul in Iraq. It touches the northern border of Tibet, crosses China between Shanghai and Beijing, then goes across South Korea before reaching Tokyo. In California, that parallel is just south of Silicon Valley.

Iraq at 36 degrees latitude
What's at latitude 36° north, longitude 45° east?
Source: ESR!, ArcGIS Online

the 36° 30' latitude of Virginia's southern border, in Asia
the 36° 30' latitude of Virginia's southern border, in Asia
Source: Google Earth

Virginia gets frosts and snowstorms from the cold polar air masses, especially in January. The shortest days of winter are in December, but the coldest days come weeks later in January. There is a lag time. The landmass of Virginia keeps cooling even after the December 21/22 winter solstice, when days start to get longer. For several more weeks after the winter solstice, Virginia radiates heat faster than the short winter days can re-heat the land... one reason February can feel like the longest month of the year, despite having the shortest number of days.

Climate shapes vegetation. Colonists in Eastern North America were disappointed when they tried to grow crops common to Western Europe at 36° latitude. Citrus and silkworms thrived at that latitude as Western Europe, but the Virginia winters were too harsh due to the winter frosts. When Europeans reached Southern California, they found a parallel region with a "Mediterranean" climate similar to Spain - and where orange and olive groves are successful.

Thomas Jefferson recorded in his Garden Book that the vegetation in May, 1774 was growing as if the winter was over until a late frost arrived:3:

"May 4. the blue ridg of mountains covered with snow.
"[May] 5. a frost which destroyed almost every thing. it killed the wheat, rye, corn, many tobacco plants, and even large saplins. the leaves of the trees were entireley killed. all the shoots of vines. at Monticello near half the fruit of every kind was killed; and before this no instance had ever occurred of any fruit killed here by the frost. in all other places in the neighborhood the destruction of fruit was total. this frost was general & equally destructive thro the whole country and the neighboring colonies.
"[May] 14. cherries ripe"

Atlantic Ocean and warm Gulf Stream keeps wintertime temperatures warmer in southeastern Virginia
Atlantic Ocean and warm Gulf Stream keeps wintertime temperatures warmer in southeastern Virginia
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Ocean Service The Gulf Stream Current

Tables of statistics, such as the Historical Climate Summaries for Virginia, can be useful even though hard to read. The monthly climate summary for Fredericksburg, using data from 1930-1997, shows how precipitation (including snow) and temperature normally vary between November and February:

Monthly Climate Summary for Fredericksburg
Source: Southeast Regional Climate Center, Fredericksburg National Park

Graphs to visualize the data can show key points easily. A brief glance at the graphic below shows that the temperature in Abingdon rises and falls in a predictable pattern each year, while the precipitation pattern is not so consistent:

Abingdon Temp and Precip

The climate normals over the last 30 years will vary from the averages established by records over the last century, back to 1895 in some cases. A comparison of today's with the climate of the Pleistocene 18,000 years ago (when Pennsylvania was half-buried by ice and there was no Chesapeake Bay), or at the end of the Paleozoic 250 million years ago (when massive coal deposits formed), shows than climate change over geologic time has been dranatic.

The 30-year normals reflect just the patterns of the last 30 years. Climate changes, though not as rapidly as the weather. The averages of the last 30 years may include warmer temperatures, higher moisture, etc. than averages calculated using all the data collected for over 100 years since 1895, but the patterns are consistent.

average normal rainfall, 1971-1990
average normal rainfall, 1971-1990
average normal minimum temperature, 1971-1990
average normal minimum temperature, 1971-1990
average normal maximum temperature, 1971-1990
average normal maximum temperature, 1971-1990
Mean Temperature - August
Mean Temperature - August
(note the location of the "hot spots" and "cool places")
Source: Southeast Regional Climate Center

There's a pattern to the temperature differences in Virginia; not every place has the same weather, and not every place in Virginia has the same climate. On the map below, compare the temperatures in Bath/Highland counties to Richmond/Norfolk. Think about the vegetation in the mountains vs. Coastal Plain - should the plants be different because the climate is different? (Hint: plants have a growing season, between the last frost of the Spring and the first frost of the Fall...)

The cool summer temperatures show why the rich Virginians went to the mountain springs and resorts during August in the 1800's before the invention of air conditioning - and why they did not go to the mountains in the winter before skiing became a sport.

Average Temperatures in Virginia
Average Temperatures in Virginia
Source: SERCC, Historical Climate Summaries and Normals for the Southeast

Acid Rain in Virginia

Air Quality in Virginia

Floods in Virginia

Global Warming in Virginia

Hurricanes in Virginia

Lightning in Virginia

Rain and Drought in Virginia

Rain Shadows - The Orographic Effect

Storms in Virginia

100-Year Storms in Virginia

Tornadoes and Derechos in Virginia

Bath and Highland counties, and cities of Richmond and Norfolk
Bath and Highland counties, and cities of Richmond and Norfolk

Links

Richmond, Virginia is at the same latitude (37.5 degrees) as Silicon Valley in California
Richmond, Virginia is at the same latitude (37.5 degrees) as Silicon Valley in California
Source: Google Earth

References

1. "Number of Days with Precipitation Equal to or Above 0.01 inches for Selected Cities in the Southeast," The Southeast Region Climate Center, https://www.sercc.com/climateinfo/historical/meanprecip.html; "Average Annual Precipitation by City in the United States," Current Results, http://www.currentresults.com/Weather/US/average-annual-precipitation-by-city.php (last checked August 26, 2014)
2. "Virginia's Climate," University of Virginia Climatology Office, http://climate.virginia.edu/description.htm (last checked September 13, 2014)
3. "Garden Book," Thomas Jefferson Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, May 5, 1774, http://www.masshist.org/thomasjeffersonpapers/doc?id=garden_18 (last checked August 26, 2014)


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