Whether we’re due for a few flakes, a few inches, or a few feet of snow, the Charlottesville area’s reaction is always the same: Leave nary an onion, a loaf of bread, or a gallon of milk on the grocery store shelves, and prepare to hunker down until the white stuff melts.
This place grinds to a near halt. Schools and offices close, events are cancelled or postponed and buses run on a modified schedule.
So, why do we buckle under winter weather? It’s a question many folks, particularly transplants from up north (like this reporter), contemplate every year.
The answer, local officials say, is simply that Charlottesville’s annual snowfall differs drastically from year to year.
The Charlottesville area averages 16 to 20 inches of snow annually, with more on nearby mountains, said Travis Koskho, head meteorologist for CBS19 News.
We’ve had 18.5 inches so far this season, according to McCormick Observatory on UVA grounds. That’s right smack in the middle of the annual snowfall average … with a couple more months of winter to go.
That’s already more than last winter’s 15.5 inches, and a lot more than the 2019-2020 season’s 2.9 inches, all of which fell on a single day, said Koshko.
It’s also a lot less than the 2009-2010 winter, which dumped a record 56.5 inches of snow on the area, according to the National Weather Service.
Places that get more snow — like Koshko’s previous residence of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which averages between 80 and 100 inches of snow per year, or this reporter’s hometown of Arlington, Massachusetts, which averages about 53 inches of snow per year — also get more consistent snow, and that affects how communities react to it, Koshko said.
“Because our snowfall is so inconsistent in this area, it makes it tough for people to get into the groove of handling the snow better,” Koshko said. When it snows just a few days a year, like it does in Charlottesville, it’s easier for folks to say “it’ll be gone shortly” and stay home and off the roads.
Snow is part of the routine in places that get it every few days. Koshko said that makes it easier for these places to budget for, prepare for and respond to winter weather.
What’s more, he noted, folks in these places have more consistent experience driving and walking in the snow and ice.
Irregular and inconsistent winter weather like we get in Charlottesville doesn’t afford folks — regular citizens and public works staffs alike — much opportunity for such practice.
Knowing the effects weather has on daily life, Koshko and other meteorologists practice something called “impact-driven forecasting.”
“A lot of times, with forecasting, it comes down to the impact and when it happens,” said Koskho. “Six to twelve inches of snow on a Saturday may not be as impactful as one or two inches of snow on a morning commute.”
Inconsistent winter weather is difficult for both the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County to plan — and thus budget — for.
The equipment and labor resources needed for 2.9 inches of snowfall in a year are drastically different from those needed for a winter with 56.5 inches, said Stacey Smalls, Charlottesville’s director of public works.
But a complete shutdown isn’t possible, even during the biggest storms, so local officials do what they can to plan ahead when snow, sleet, ice, and other types of winter weather appear in the forecast.
For instance, if the forecast calls for rain and then snow, there’s little use in pre-treating the roads, Smalls said. Rain washes away the salt and brine (those thin white stripes you sometimes see on the roads before a storm) that helps prevent snow and ice from sticking to the road surface.
Or, the city’s snowplow fleet probably isn’t needed for a dusting of fluffy snow that falls before the sun comes up and melts before kids arrive at the bus stop. But many inches of heavy snow followed by some cloudy and cold days would require the city to deploy its fleet.
The size and length of a weather incident also determines how many people Public Works will have on its on-call list to plow, remove trees, pre-treat roads, and other duties, said Smalls.
“It’s our job to look at [the forecast] and consider what would happen and prepare, and I think we’re really well-prepared for the season,” said Smalls, who didn’t see much snow growing up in South Carolina. More prepared, he said, than Atlanta was when he was there for a football game a couple years ago. “When snow occurred there, it totally shut down the city,” he said.
Like any other budget item — year-round road maintenance, stormwater system management — Charlottesville’s Public Works department has to “make determinations, and then be a little flexible,” Smalls said. If the city gets more snow than the Public Works budgeted for, the department can ask the City Manager’s Office for additional funding.
The important task of treating, clearing, and managing roads works differently in the county, said Emily Kilroy, a spokesperson for Albemarle County. That’s because the county is not responsible for its roads. The Virginia Department of Transportation is.
With VDOT working on the roads, the county’s top priority is keeping public safety operations — police, fire, ambulance — moving, said Kilroy, and that takes a concerted effort among various county departments.
For instance, the grounds team helps keep fire and police entrances clear and makes sure that the fuel pumps for public safety vehicles remain accessible throughout the county. It’s an important task, said Kilroy: The county is huge — 726 square miles — and in any given shift, an emergency vehicle might have to cover a lot of that ground. An ambulance without fuel can’t transport someone to a hospital.
Sometimes, the county has to set up staff in hotels to ensure that it will have enough people to respond, said Kilroy. It’s crucial to have chainsaw-trained crews to help VDOT clear downed trees, or to have social services folks to open warming centers for those who lose power.
For all the long-term predicting and modeling that meteorologists do to help city and county crews prepare, surprises still happen. Koshko said that while he and other experts anticipated a wet winter, they didn’t foresee how cold this one would be. But for the most part, that hasn’t changed how people here react to winter weather.
“We’re in a weird place,” said Koskho, laughing. “We get big snows, we stay home. We get a little snow, we stay home.”