I’ve heard this while walking around town quite a bit over the last couple of years: It’s stayed too warm, we don’t see snow like we used to here. Though some folks may not mind that, that got me to wondering, does West Virginia actually receive less snowfall than the state used to?
On average, Charleston receives about 36″ of snowfall during a year, while Elkins averages around 83″. However, both Charleston and Elkins have received well less than that average over the last 10 years.
The large snowfall difference between the two cities has a nearly direct correlation with elevation. During the winter months, it is very common for an upslope snow effect to take place on the mountaintops of the Appalachians. This effect takes place when moisture in the form of clouds from a source of water (usually the Great Lakes for our region) is pushed up over the mountaintops and condenses, causing snow to fall when temperatures are sufficiently cold. Upslope adds significantly to the average snow total of an affected town, and Elkins is certainly one of those affected.
Over the last fifty years, Charleston is averaging less snowfall than during any other period. During the ten-year period of 1977-1986, the city averaged just under 43″ of snow per year. This past decade, Charleston has averaged around 31″ – about a 25% drop. But this past decade also includes the top 2 lowest snowfall seasons ever, with only 7.5″ of snow falling in the 2016-2017 season, and only 11.7″ of snow falling in the 2011-2012 season (Note: Snowfall data from 1995-2005 is not available for Charleston or Elkins).
In Elkins, the town dropped from about 88″ of average snowfall during the ten-year span of 1987-1996, to only about 67″ in 2007-2016″, also about a 25% drop. The 2011-2012 snow season provided the lowest amount of snowfall during the 50 year span for Elkins, with only 30.6″ of snow falling.
Over the last 50 years, the 2016-2017 snow season provided the lowest number of days with measurable snowfall ever in Charleston, with only 8 days of measurable snowfall being recorded in Charleston in that winter season. That season is followed by the 2011-2012 season (12), the 2015-2016 season (17), the 2006-2007 season (17), and the 2005-2006 season (17) in Charleston.
For Elkins, the 2011-2012 season provided the lowest number of days with measurable snowfall over the last fifty years, with 24 days, followed by the 2016-2017 season (25), 2014-2015 season (28), the 2015-2016 season (30), and the 2007-2008 season (32).
Despite the lowering number of days with measurable snowfall in West Virginia, there has not been a change in the number of significant snowfalls in the Mountain State. Charleston has consistently averaged 2-3 snow storms with at least 6 inches per year, and outside of this past snow season, that has not changed. In fact, the January 2016 snowstorm was the 6th heaviest snowfall on record in the capitol city, with over 18″ of snow falling. The December 2009 snow storm was the 10th heaviest snowfall on record in Charleston, with over 12 inches of snow taking place. In addition, Elkins has had two different snowstorms with at least 20 inches of snow over the past ten years, and 4 since 1994. The town has only 7 recorded snowfalls with at least 20 inches of snow in the town’s record.
Let’s also not forget Hurricane Sandy, which dropped record October snowfalls across the Mountain State in 2012. Mountain areas approached three feet of wet snow, which left tens of thousands of electric customers without power for several days.
Is there enough evidence to make the conclusion that our area is seeing less snowfall than in years past? There is certainly enough evidence to suggest that our area has generally received less snowfall over the last ten years in comparison to over the last fifty years.
West Virginia is seeing less days with snowfall in years past, which is leading to less snowfall totals. However, the state is not seeing less days with significant snowfall (greater than six inches). In fact, 4 of Elkins’ 7 snowstorms where the town received at least 20 inches of snow have occurred since 1994.
It is the days where towns in West Virginia are receiving less than six inches of snow that our area is seeing much less of. Particularly over the past three to four seasons, a good reason for that could be hypothesized as being the result of abnormally warm weather during the winter months.
The question that remains is whether this trend of less snow and less measurable snowfall days in our area will continue in the coming years.
More towns were analyzed for average snowfall changes in West Virginia over the last fifty years. Charleston, WV and Elkins, WV were used because both are used by superior airport equipment for optimal accuracy. However, average snowfall for Buckhannon, WV, Glenville, WV, Grantsville, WV, and Summersville Lake, WV were also analyzed. For towns near the US-33 corridor, lower snowfall totals occurred during the 1997-2006 span than any other ten-year span. This was also the case at Summersville Lake.
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