Summer 2021 in Review: A look back at the last three months

Weather

Beckley, WV (WVNS) — Summer, in the meteorological sense, has come and gone. Most students are back in school and pumpkin spice has returned to the coffee shops. A few things stood out over the past few months such as the return of the state fair and other activities, but the weather also made headlines.

Temperatures

It wasn’t a glaringly hot summer. Many remember some cooler than average days, plenty of humidity, and some heat here and there. Pretty typical for summertime. But that heat “here and there” added up. Looking back from June 1 to August 31, these were the eleventh hottest 92 days of summer recorded since 1896 in Beckley. That’s 11 out of 124 years. 2021 joins four other years from the past decade or so in the top 11.

In general, summers in West Virginia have been getting warmer. Based on the most recent set of climate normals (1991-2020) for West Virginia, the average summertime temperature is 70.1-degrees. That’s up from the previous set of climate normals (1981-2010) which pegged average summer temperatures at 69.3-degrees. In ten years, summers managed to warm by just short of a whole degree.

The charts below show this pretty plainly too. While there is a lot of missing data between the 1920s and 1940s, it’s easy to see for the years we do have consistent data, we didn’t start averaging close to our current numbers until we hit the 1990s.

Many assume a hotter summer comes from hotter days. In reality, a large part of summer warming can be attributed to warmer summer nights as more heat gets trapped and isn’t allowed to escape up into the atmosphere. Believe it or not, Summer is only our third fastest warming season in West Virginia. Both Winter and Spring have seen faster climbs since 1970 according to Climate Central using data obtained from NOAA.

Precipitation

Unsurprisingly we didn’t break into the top 10, or even the top 20 wettest summers across southern West Virginia. This was after we saw a drastic drop in rainfall across much of the area during the month of July. Most of the rain that was seen was fairly hit or miss, and many were missed.

Images comparing the first issuance of the drought monitor for our area versus the most recent release from August 31.
Data: University of Nebraska Lincoln/NOAA

A majority of Pocahontas county has been listed as at least “Abnormally Dry” on the drought monitor since as early as July 13. Eastern Greenbrier and Monroe have faced a similar dilemma since July 27. As time went on most of the area was declared at least “Abnormally Dry” by August 3, with a “Moderate Drought” being issued for Pocahontas, eastern Greenbrier, and Monroe counties.

When it comes down to the hard numbers, Beckley saw a slightly above average summer for rain. Normally we would expect just less than 13-inches, this time around we saw 15.25-inches after adding up all 92 days of summer*. Bluefield on the other hand felt the burden of the hit or miss rain this summer with only 8.87-inches of rain falling across June, July, and August. Well, short of the nearly 12-inches that’s to be expected.

*Authors Note: Officially the Beckley Airport (KBKW) only saw 14.35-inches of rain, on August 30 the station was struck by lightning which caused it to go out for a majority of the last two days of summer. The number stated above (15.25-inches) comes from adding in the rain recorded at the backup site at the Beckley VA Hospital for August 30 and 31 in order to create a more accurate figure.

Why do these changes matter?

In the end, the changes being observed to our weather aren’t exactly new. But as they become more extreme and more common, they become much more impactful.

Increasing temperatures during summer nights can lead to a greater demand for cooling, pushing more strain on the power grid, power plants, and people’s wallets. In big cities, this increased demand can further contribute to the urban heat island effect enhancing the already present issue of warmer than normal nights.

Image Courtesy: Climate Central; Data: EIA

Outside of the heat, a warming climate brings other problems. Warmer air can not only hold more water vapor, but it also promotes additional evaporation off the oceans providing fuel for future heavy downpours. We’ve already begun to see changes in the way rain falls all across the country. It’s no longer light rainfalls that add up over several days to satisfy our water needs, but quick and heavy downpours that drop the water we need but simply too fast. Our future water woes on the East Coast likely won’t be seeing too little water but just too much and too fast as our climate evolves.

Image Courtesy: Climate Central; Data: USGRCP Climate Science Special Report 2017

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