by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
As I sit and listen to ice bouncing off my roof wishing instead for idyllic snowfall, I ponder the oddity that is Virginia winter weather. Virginia climate gradients are fascinating as you head from west to east or north to south. Few states can match the diversity of weather found in the great commonwealth. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will delve into the dynamics of the climate in Virginia.
Virginia is made up of six different climate regions: Tidewater, Eastern Piedmont, Western Piedmont, Northern, Central Mountain, and the Southwestern Mountain region. The uniqueness of Wintergreen is that it straddles two regions, the Western Piedmont and the Central Mountain regions. The Piedmont features long growing seasons with few dips into the subzero range while the Central Mountain region features the driest areas in the state (portions of the Shenandoah Valley) and the snowiest (Highland County) and thus features a harsher climate overall.
Three primary factors control the overall climate of Virginia: the Gulf Stream, the high relief of the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains, and the complex system of river and streams. The Gulf Stream plays a dominant role in our precipitation climate. Winter storms generally track from west to east and begin a northeastern movement paralleling the boundary between the cold land and the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. The Blue Ridge Mountains are often the recipient of a bounty of snow dumping when these two forces meet. The three biggest snow events in Virginia recorded history occurred in Madison, Warren and Page County, all three counties abutting or straddling the Blue Ridge. The biggest snow event was a 3-day 49-inch dumping at Big Meadows in 1996. That same snow event dumped 30 inches of snow at Montebello in 1996.
The high relief of the mountains of Virginia has a huge influence on precipitation throughout the state. When air flows from the west, the Shenandoah and New River valleys are in the rain shadow of the Appalachian Mountains. When the air flows from the east, they are in the rain shadow of the Blue Ridge. The result is these two valleys are the driest areas in the state. This high relief played a large role in the 1969 record rainfall of 27+ inches from Hurricane Camille being slowed by the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The third climate control is the complex pattern of rivers and streams that modify the pattern of moist airflow. The river systems drain the commonwealth in all four geographic directions. The Clinch and Holsten drain the Southwest to the south, the New River drains to the west, the Shenandoah drains to the north and the James, York, Rappahannock, and Roanoke all drain to the east. Air that flows through Virginia will go up a certain river valley and crest over the ridge down into another river system. It will generally dump its precipitation on the upward charge and be depleted by the time it surges down into the next river valley.
These factors lead to the havoc that is a winter storm at Wintergreen. Being at the edge of two climate regions as distinct as the Shenandoah Valley and the Piedmont, along with sitting on two different river drainages (the northwest portion of Wintergreen drains into the Potomac basin while the rest drains into the James River basin), makes the winter storm options fascinating. Add an elevation change of approximately 3000 feet from Devils Knob to Stoney Creek, and the resulting temperature gradient means different conditions within the same storm. The beauty of living at Wintergreen is that if you don’t like the conditions feel free to journey to another part of the property and you are bound to find conditions more suitable to your liking.