Now I’m sure you’ve all heard a lot of people complaining about the weather. It’s either too hot or too cold, or there’s too much rain or not enough rain. But for a curious cadre of keen-eyed observers, weather is not a source of complaints, it’s a way of life.
David Lesher grew up surrounded by discussions of the weather, but he didn’t quite grasp the magnitude of these chats until an historic winter storm blanketed his home in Washington, D.C. with snow. At just 10 years old, Lesher learned how to log daily temperature throughout the storm from his father, a meteorologist for the Air Force. “It was the thing that lit the fire and it’s always been burning,” says Lesher. “Being a weather observer has been something I’ve done wherever I’ve lived.”
Throughout his career creating maps for the U.S. Department of Defense, Lesher always recorded temperature data at home using an outdoor thermometer. When he moved to Canaan Valley 20 years ago, he continued pursuing his passion for winter weather. “I’m a firm believer that the winter is what brings people to Canaan Valley. It brought me here,” he says.
There’s Snowhere Like Canaan Valley
Canaan Valley sits upon the Allegheny Plateau, nestled along the crest of the Eastern Continental Divide. As the highest elevation valley of its size east of the Mississippi, the weather in Canaan Valley is characterized by cool, pleasant summers and cold, snowy winters. The coldest temperature ever recorded was -27° F on January 21, 1985, and the highest was 96° F on July 16, 1988. Because of the cool weather and frequent hard frosts, Canaan Valley has a shorter growing season than Fairbanks, Alaska, which is only 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle. With an average last frost occurring on June 1 and first frost on August 30, the Valley’s average growing season is restricted to just 99 days.
While it may be tricky to grow warm-weather crops, Canaan Valley reaps a bounty of snow each winter, receiving an average of 12.9 feet (155 inches) of snow, based on the last 30 years of observations. The winter of 1995 – 1996 served up a record-breaking snowfall of 21.4 feet (256.8 inches). “That area creates its own weather,” says Robert Leffler, a climate expert for West Virginia’s high country who spent his career at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The broad hump of the Allegheny Mountains in north-central West Virginia forms a barrier about 100 miles long and 15 miles wide. “It’s not an isolated mountain peak, where the air can flow around it, like a boulder in a creek,” Leffler says. This hump forces the entire air mass up and over the mountains, which is the fundamental mechanism for creating snow in the region, also known as upslope snow. As air is forced to go up in elevation over the mountains, it cools and any moisture is squeezed out, like wringing a towel. “The angle of that lift is perfect. It’s almost a 90-degree angle to the northwest wind, which maximizes lift,” says Leffler. “That’s why you get days and days of snow up there where it just doesn’t quit. There’s no atmospheric disturbance, there’s no storm, it’s just the lift of the mountains.”
A Meticulous Fascination for Snowfall
George Thompson and his family started recording daily weather observations in Canaan Valley in 1944, which have continued unbroken since then. In 1994, the job passed onto Kenny Sturm and in 2013, Elaine George took over the task. George and Lesher are two of three observers in Tucker County that participate in the National Weather Service (NWS) Cooperative Observer Program. The program, which was created in 1890, relies on the efforts of more than 8,700 volunteers nationwide.
When Lesher joined the program in fall 2001, the NWS gave him a weather station and equipment to ensure that the data being collected was standardized across the country. Every morning at 7 a.m., Lesher records high and low temperatures along with precipitation and snowfall for the NWS. He jokes, “It’s not well-suited for somebody who likes sleeping in.”
Along with providing weather data to the NWS, Lesher updates a publicly available spreadsheet with his daily observations. “I wanted to have a way in which people here could see what the weather has been over the years since we started doing this in 2001,” he says. His Canaan Mountain Snowfall Report features daily minimum and maximum temperatures, precipitation, snowfall, and snow depth. Sometimes he includes comments, like when the first snowflake of the season falls or an oddly warm day in November. He also provides data on monthly and winter seasonal snowfall and the number of days with a certain amount of snow on the ground.
Given its ephemeral nature, collecting snow data requires a steadfast commitment and rigorous attention to detail. Lesher measures 24-hour snowfall whenever the flakes start falling, but frequent winds can make his work particularly tricky. “You try to keep track of how much snow fell during that time and not just whatever’s there the next morning,” he says.
Avoiding drifted and windswept areas is also key for measuring snow depth, which Lesher calculates by averaging samples from 10 sites in his yard using a yardstick. “In my 20 years here, I have been meticulous in measuring snowfall.” This approach instills a great degree of confidence in the weather data Lesher has collected on Canaan Heights, as well as the trends he has observed over time. For instance, he has never recorded a 90° F day or a night that stayed above 70° F. He’s even recorded a few days that never went above 0° F. More recently, he logged a record high temperature of 72° F for November at his weather station.
In addition to daily temperature observations, Lesher is interested in climate, or the long-term average and variability of weather in a particular area. “Clearly there’s been diminishing amounts of snow here,” he says based on his 19-year dataset as well as earlier weather observations from Canaan Valley. “There were typically some winters when 150 to 180 inches of snow in a winter was normal, but not in recent years, certainly not in the last 3 years.”
Weathering the Storm
The winter conditions of the Allegheny Highlands present a challenge not only to those attempting to accurately measure snowfall, but also to the weather stations themselves. David Carroll, a meteorology instructor at Virginia Tech, set up weather stations at Spruce Knob, Dolly Sods, Canaan Valley, and Cabin Mountain in 2017 to monitor temperature, wind speed, air pressure, and moisture content. Out of the five sites, Carroll says the harshest conditions occur at a site on northern Cabin Mountain, where winds have reached 90 mph. Although none of the other sites have experienced a structural failure, the weather station on northern Cabin Mountain has failed five times in just three years. “I’ve made all kinds of modifications to it, and it continues to blow over. We’re actually using mobile home anchors right now to anchor it, which seems to work,” says Carroll. But when parts continue to shear off during icy, high-wind events, there aren’t many options for reinforcements and repairs.
One of the most stunning features of winter in West Virginia is rime ice, which creates a frost line that elegantly dissects the mountains into brown hues below and pure white above. As clouds settle atop the mountains during 28 or 29-degree days, supercooled water encases each branch and twig in thick frost, highlighting delicate details that become blurred in the snow. Despite its beauty, heavy rime ice can wreak havoc on weather stations. “Ice is really hard on the equipment,” says Julie Dzaack, who monitors two weather observation sites in Canaan Valley for NOAA. “Moving parts can’t move, and yet there is still a motor trying to make them move.”
Dzaack moved to Canaan Valley in 1982 and, in 2009, took on a job with NOAA to perform maintenance on the two sites. One site collects data on temperature, precipitation, and wind as part of the U.S. Climate Reference Network, which was established in 2003 to provide long-term, high-quality data on the nation’s climate. The other site is part of the National Trends Network (NTN), which is a country-wide program that records precipitation chemistry. Dzaack collects precipitation samples from this site weekly, which are then analyzed for particulates, acidity, and conductivity.
These data are also backtracked to upper air currents to determine where the precipitation tracked before falling in Canaan Valley. Before joining the NTN, this site was part of a separate program focused on air quality and atmospheric deposition in the eastern U.S. that had to be monitored every day of the year. Because the site was located just two miles from her house, Dzaack frequently hiked or skied to the site. “I certainly never missed a day because of weather,” she says.
“I’ve shoveled eight inches of partly cloudy, just like you have.”
Checking on weather stations can take anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours or longer if something is broken. Despite the challenges, Dzaack and Carroll find great joy and purpose in their work. “I like being part of citizen science. The overall dataset of information that’s collected is really valuable not just to Canaan Valley, but to overall trends of what’s happening with climate trends nationally,” says Dzaack.
Through informal monitoring, Carroll and his colleagues observed -25° F to -30° F temperatures in Canaan Valley during the last few years, but they’re hoping to record even colder temperatures with their weather stations. The coldest temperature ever recorded in West Virginia was -37° F in Lewisburg on December 30, 1917. “We don’t know much about that record, how it was collected, even where it was,” says Carroll. “The true state record probably lies in a place like Canaan Valley, probably minus 50 or so.” With a weather station now on the floor of Canaan Valley, Carroll and others are simply waiting for a calm, clear night to break the state record.
Mother Nature Rules the Roost
The ground data collected by weather observers throughout the Mountain State is incorporated into models that Leffler uses to create complimentary winter forecasts for ski resorts, schools, ski plow operators, and weather nerds across the Mountain State. “I thought we could improve the winter weather forecasting, which is a cash crop for the area with all the winter recreation and the heavy snow falls,” he says. Affectionately known as the Fearless Canaan Weatherman, Leffler spends one to two hours conducting analyses for each of his two weekly forecasts. While his forecasts highlight Canaan Valley, they cover about 3,000 square miles of West Virginia’s high country, including Spruce Knob and Dolly Sods.
Leffler uses four or five models developed by NOAA, universities, the European Weather Center, and others to create his forecasts. “As a human being, it’s very hard to beat the models when you get out past 24 or 48 hours. The physics are so sophisticated now,” he says. Models combine surface data with upper air data collected by aircrafts with temperature sensors. “David Lesher’s observations go into the model, and then it spits out a forecast exactly for his backyard.”
While the models can synthesize vast amounts of data over broad geographic scales, Leffler notes that the forecasts produced by the models don’t always incorporate knowledge of the local weather and climate. For instance, knowing the elevation, topography, and socioeconomic factors of a particular region can help create more accurate and informative forecasts.
Another variable that isn’t handled particularly well in the models is snowfall. Many models assume a ratio of 10 inches of snow for one inch of rain. “But the amount of snow that falls varies tremendously with the temperature,” says Leffler. “At a temperature of about 0° F, you might get 14 inches of snow for one inch of rain, but as you get toward freezing, you might end up with six or eight inches of snow out of one inch of rain.” He even notes that if it’s very cold and the physics of the clouds are just right, it’s possible to get 100 inches of extremely light, fluffy snow from one inch of rain.
Despite advancements in the models and increasing amounts of data, Leffler always acknowledges the random nature of weather. When he blows a forecast, he often sends a follow up analysis of what went wrong in the hopes of improving his forecasts in the future. “The randomness of the entire process and the physics of weather is such that some of it is very difficult to predict, as we all know. We’ve all had picnics ruined. And I’ve shoveled eight inches of partly cloudy, just like you have.”
The Sucker Hole
You’ve probably experienced those days where it’s dumping snow outside even though there’s not a single thing on the radar. Well, there’s a reason for that and it’s called a sucker hole. The nearest radars to north-central West Virginia are in Charleston, West Virginia; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Stirling, Virginia. Canaan Valley, Spruce Knob, Snowshoe, and the surrounding areas are centrally located in a sucker hole, which is a zone that’s furthest away from the radar.
The radar beams, which angle upward, are up at about 15,000 feet and beyond when they reach the Canaan and Spruce Knob areas. During the summer, the radar can detect thunderstorms and rain events as cloud tops often extend up to 40,000 or 50,000 feet. But during the winter, cloud tops hover around 10,000 to 12,000 feet or even lower, leaving snowfall and whiteout blizzards undetected by the radar. “That happens almost all the time in the winter with the upslope snow,” says Leffler.
Depending on the Weather
While observing the weather is an endlessly engaging activity for these select few, their efforts ultimately impact us all. “[NOAA], which is the mothership for the National Weather Service, has the responsibility to monitor the nation’s climate because there are so many things that depend on it,” says Lesher.
The weather and climate shape our daily decisions to play outside or stay indoors, as well as our daily conversations about whether there’s too much rain or not enough rain. The climate affects which agricultural crops will grow and the risk of natural disasters, such as floods and droughts.
With three ski resorts, the Canaan Valley region is particularly dependent on the weather to draw in visitors from across the country during the winter. Summer tourism in the Mountain State is also influenced by the climate, in part through its effects on the plant communities that thrive here. Dolly Sods is renowned for its flagged spruce trees and harsh, rugged topography. “These sub-arctic plants are located in these places for a reason, they’re holdovers from the last ice age, and they’ve retreated to these cold, isolated valleys like Canaan Valley,” says Carroll. “It’s to our advantage to not only understand the existing climate, but how it might change over time.”
Monitoring long-term weather and climate patterns can provide insight into how plant and animal communities might be affected in the future, which ultimately impact the nature of West Virginia’s iconic landscapes. The dense red spruce forests, jungled gorges, exposed rock cliffs, and broad valleys are all defined by the weather. “If it weren’t for the weather, Canaan Valley would not be what it is,” says Lesher. “It’s that simple.”
Nikki Forrester is associate editor of Highland Outdoors. She wants to become a weather observer, but just can’t wake up early enough.