Climate SummaryFrom Jim Barach
Charleston-Huntington & Surrounding Areas
Eyewitness News Storm Team Chief Meteorologist
This climate summary covers the western part of West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southern Ohio, the viewing area of the Charleston/Huntington TV market. For consistency and simplicity, all records and averages are taken from the National Weather Service site in Charleston, WV.
The Tri-State area of eastern Kentucky, southern Ohio and western West Virginia enjoys a climate that offers four distinct seasons which are pretty much equal in length. It can almost be considered a hybrid climate, falling between the "subtropical" and "continental" climate classifications of the eastern United States.
The geography and terrain play a large part in the local climate, as it does with most places. The hilly terrain acts as a natural barrier to wind. The average annual wind speed in Charleston is 6.2 miles an hour, making it one of the least windy cities in the country. However, while valleys are wind protected, the ridge tops can be subjected to very strong winds. In fact, West Virginia has some ideal locations for wind farms, especially in the eastern mountains. The state currently generates 66 Megawatts of power through wind turbines, and has proposals to boost that number to 300 Megawatts. While acting as a wind shelter, the hills also have an effect on discouraging severe weather which will be mentioned later. The hills also cause problems in the way of water drainage. West Virginia has a history of flooding problems caused by the inability of the smaller creeks and stream systems to handle the runoff that results from heavy rain events. Strong thunderstorms and persistent rainfall events often result in localized flooding which can last for days at a time. This problem dates back to the early settlers who first moved into the hollows and built in the flood plains of the creeks and streams. Modern urbanization also contributes to localized flooding by impeding natural drainage. Persistent heavy rains from stalled storm systems or even hurricane and tropical storm remnants can also result in river flooding, which can affect much larger areas when major rivers like the Ohio and Kanawha overflow their banks.
The mountainous terrain can add to rain and snow fall amounts through "upslope" conditions. Air forced up mountain slopes adds extra "lift" to an air mass that can enhance cooling and condensation which adds to precipitation totals in those areas. The location in the path of the middle latitude cyclone track, abundant moisture supply from rivers, the Gulf of Mexico and winter lake enhancement from the Great Lakes are all features that contribute to more days dominated by clouds than sunshine. Charleston averages 189 cloudy days a year, ranking it in the lower half of the cities in the U.S. with the most average annual sunshine.
The area just misses qualifying for "D", or "Humid Continental" classification on the Koeppen Scale. To do this, the coldest month must have an average temperature of less than 32 degrees Fahrenheit. January and February come very close, with both months averaging a frigid 33.4 degrees.
Taking all this into consideration, the hybrid climate of the region means avoiding both the long and cold winters of the northeast, and the extended hot summers of the southeast. Each season lasts about the entire three month span it is given before transitioning to the next. For this summary we will use the meteorological calendar, which defines Spring as running from March through May, Summer the months of June through August, Autumn encompassing September through November, and Winter comprising of December through February.
By the time spring begins, the snow season is already winding down. March averages 5" of snow, with total precipitation averaging 3.90" (Keep in mind that most snow melts down at about a 10 to 1 ratio, meaning 10 inches of snow equals about one inch of water.)
Temperatures rise rapidly following the winter chill, with the monthly average temperature climbing to 45.3 degrees. Daily high temperatures through the month average from 51 to 62 degrees.
April warms to a more comfortable average monthly temperature of 54.3 degrees with an average precipitation of 3.25". Snow is not common but still possible, with an average of just less than an inch for the month. That 30 year average is bumped a bit by the 1987 April 5th blizzard that dropped 20.7" of snow in the Charleston area!
May has an average monthly temperature of 62.4 degrees, and by May 10th the growing season is in full swing. It is very rare to experience freezing temperatures after that date. The growing season is helped along with May's normal rainfall of 4.30".
That brings us to June, and the start of the summer months. Summer is the wettest season as the region is opened up to moisture advecting up from the Gulf of Mexico. The prevailing overall wind direction is from the south/southwest during the summer, which allows warm and moist air to move in from the Mississippi Valley. The hot temperatures promote rising air currents which are instrumental in forming thunderstorms which supply much of the rainfall during this time of year. Occasionally the remains of a former hurricane or tropical storm will get caught up into a storm system and bring heavy rain to the region as well.
Thunderstorms can reach strong to severe levels, and can cause damage from strong winds, large hail and heavy rainfall. Tornadoes are rare in West Virginia, mostly because of the topography. The hills and mountains tend to break up the air flow into strong thunderstorms where tornadoes originate. Interestingly enough, the flatter terrain over parts of Kentucky and over Southern Ohio allow many more tornadoes to be spawned in those areas. In fact, in 1968 a rare F-5 tornado that formed in Kentucky hit Scioto, Lawrence and Gallia counties in Ohio which caused widespread destruction that resulted in seven deaths in Wheelersburg, Ohio. F-5 tornadoes are more commonly associated with the Plains states which are also relatively flat.
The abundant moisture during the summer months also has another effect. On mostly clear nights when the night time temperature cools to near the dew point, the moisture is able to condense into a layer of fog. This phenomenon mostly happens in the river valleys, where the cooler air tends to pool at the lowest points. The high sun angle this time of year usually helps dissipate the layer of fog by the mid morning hours.
June enjoys an average monthly temperature of 69.9 degrees, with the expected monthly precipitation of 4.09".
July is the warmest month, averaging 73.9 degrees. That qualifies the region for the "Subtropical" designation on the Koeppen Scale.It is also the wettest month with its average rainfall of 4.86", a result of the heat and abundant Gulf moisture.
August is just a bit cooler than July, with an average monthly temperature of 72.6 degrees, and a normal rainfall value of 4.11".
During the summer, the warmest average high temperature is 85 degrees which happens during most of July and the first part of August. Charleston averages about three weeks' worth of 90 degree temperatures each year. 100 degree readings are uncommon, though not rare. There are 65 days in the year with record high temperatures of 100 degrees or hotter, all in June through September. The hottest temperature ever recorded in Charleston is 108 degrees, on July 3, 1931 and on August 6th, 1918. On August 16, 2007 Charleston hit a high temperature of 104 degrees. That was the first time Charleston reached triple digits since July 28, 1993. The earliest 100 degrees has ever been reported in Charleston is June 3rd, and the latest occurrence is September 22nd. 90 degree readings have been recorded in every month from March through October. Every month in the calendar has hit 80 degrees at least once.
Autumn brings fast relief from the summer heat. As the temperatures cool down and the sun angle lowers, the deciduous trees that populate the state start to turn and bring a spectacular array of colors to the area's hillsides. The trees typically start to change color in early October, depending on the previous season's heat and precipitation. This lasts for a couple of weeks before abscission, or trees losing their leaves takes place.
September enjoys an average monthly temperature of 66.2 degrees and typical rainfall of 3.45".
October is the driest month by average, as the moisture source from the Gulf of Mexico is cut off by the changing weather patterns, and it is still too early for any strong cold fronts to make it down from Canada to bring much in the way of rainfall. The average monthly temperature is 55.1 degrees with average precipitation of only 2.67", the only month to expect less than three inches in the rain gauge. October is a real transition month, with pleasant temperatures expected at the start, but the possibility of very cool readings towards the end. In fact, snow comes back into reality as the month averages a tenth of an inch of snowfall. It's not much of a reality, though as only five years have seen measurable snow in October since 1960.
November cools down to an average temperature of 45.9 degrees with a normal precipitation of 3.66". Measurable snowfall is not out of the question by any means, with an average of 2". Interestingly enough, the heaviest snowfall ever recorded in Charleston and in West Virginia happened in November. The "Post-Thanksgiving Storm" of November 24-29,1950 dropped an incredible 25.7" of snow in Charleston. The storm also brought a 57" snowfall to Pickens, which is the state record for snowfall from any one storm. November almost mirrors the month of March. Compare the March numbers of 45.3 degrees temperature, 3.90" precipitation and 5" of snow fall and it's hard to tell the two apart!
Winters are not particularly cold or long in the region, with occasional stretches of mild weather that make the trek through the cold months a little more bearable. As was previously mentioned, each of the winter months has hit 80 degrees at least once, and it is not unusual to see a winter where all three months have one or two days in the 70s. However, at times a persistent low pressure center can set up over James Bay. This low, sometimes called the "Polar Vortex" can remain in place for weeks at a time. This promotes a strong northerly flow that can pull arctic air from extreme northern Canada that can bring frigid conditions to the region that can last a month at a time or longer.
Also adding to winter time precipitation are the Great Lakes. The prevailing wind flow during the cold season is from the northwest. The cold air sometimes travels across Lake Michigan and Lake Erie and picks up extra moisture from the warm water sources. This "lake enhancement" will often cause snow on its own or add to snowfall totals from a storm system moving through the region.
December has an average monthly temperature of 37.5 degrees with normal precipitation of 3.32", and an average snowfall of 5".
January averages 33.4 degrees, which may seem cold but is still above freezing, with a normal monthly precipitation of 3.25". It is the snowiest month by average with a normal snow fall of 11".
February ties January as the coldest month at 33.4degrees by average with a normal monthly precipitation of 3.20" and an expected snow fall total of 9".
That gives Charleston an average yearly snow fall of 32 inches. Areas to the west will see less than that, and mountain regions to the experience much heavier snowfall amounts due to the aforementioned upslope effect. Places like Snowshoe Ski Resort can easily several hundred inches in a year! The mountain counties to the east of Kanawha County are several hundred feet higher in elevation than Charleston, and the gradual increase in height creates the upslope effect. While Huntington to the west averages only 25" of snowfall a year, the gradual rise in elevation to Charleston makes for the slightly higher 32" snowfall average in the Capital City. Beckley, WV averages 59" of snowfall a year at around 2,400 feet in elevation, and the nearly 2,000 feet high location of Elkins adds to its 76" yearly snowfall total.
The coldest temperature ever recorded in Charleston was interestingly not in either of the coldest months of January or February, but on December 30, 1917 when the mercury dropped to a bone chilling 17 degrees below zero.
Complete Monthly and Annual Extremes, Records and Averages available at the web site for the Charleston, WV office of the National Weather Service.
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