Why Greensboro is the freezing rain capital of the Southeast
There's a specific reason why this corner of North Carolina always seems to get the worst type of winter weather.
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Good day, person who still has electricity and/or cell phone service! If you don’t already know, parts of this state are on the cusp of yet another bad ice storm. No, we’re not dealing with a Texas-style winter weather apocalypse, but a lot of folks are probably going to be living through their second extended round of downed trees and power outages in a week. As a result, my family and I have decamped to the coast for a few days, where it’s pouring down rain but remains a balmy 42 degrees. I was gonna write a super long, winter-weather gripe-filled newsletter today, but this one’s gonna be relatively short, sweet, and to the point. For once.
As a person who’s lived in both Charlotte and Greensboro, I’ve always noticed that the winter weather always feels significantly worse in a city that’s a mere hour-and-a-half drive up north. We get snow a little bit more now than we did when I was in Charlotte, and Greensboro always seems to have freezing rain in the forecast. The latter, in my opinion, is the most depressing form of weather. Nothing spells seasonal depression like precipitation that rips down tree limbs and power lines without altering the lovely, mood-killing mud brown landscape.
It turns out that freezing rain is, actually, A Thing™ up here. Earlier this week, a UNC-Charlotte grad student named Eric Webb tweeted out this a diagram of the areas most likely to have to deal with ice storms. It comes from a report that studied the areas that got them most.
Congratulations Greensboro: We’re the freezing rain capital of the Southeast. Yaaaay.
The report, which is fairly old at this point (it came out in 2002 and summarized data from 1976 through 1990), says there are a couple of major ingredients: The closeness of the Appalachian Mountains, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean, combined with a phenomenon called cold air damming, where warm air has to rise up over a mountain range, and then, on the back side of the mountains, remains aloft. That means rain falls through a cold layer of air, and then can freeze. According to my former co-worker Brad Panovich, chief meteorologist at WCNC-TV in Charlotte: “This is a phenomenon we see here more often than any part of the country.”
In short, it’s the mountains’ fault. “We wouldn’t be the freezing rain capital if the mountains didn’t exist to our west,” says Tim Buckley, chief meteorologist for WFMY-TV in Greensboro.
Here are some diagrams for those who crave visuals:
North Carolina’s Climate Office describes it this way:
When cold air damming works in tandem with a storm system which transports moisture into the cold air in place over NC, wintry precipitation occurs. Depending on how deep the layer of cold air is, the precipitation can fall as snow, sleet, freezing rain, or just a cold rain. Often, events may begin as snow or sleet (or a snow/sleet mixture) before the warmer, moist air begins to erode some of the cold air and changes the precipitation over to freezing rain or just a cold rain.
Freezing rain happens quite a bit all over the Piedmont, which sits right on the eastern side of the mountains, but it’s especially bad in Greensboro. “It’s kind of the perfect location,” Panovich told me. “It's close enough to the cold air to the north, but also the warm moisture to the south. It happens from Virginia to Georgia, but Greensboro is right in the middle. Just the perfect spot for the ACC Basketball tournament. It's in the middle of all of it.” (Related: You can’t go wrong in Greensboro when you bring up the ACC Tournament.)
tl;dr though: Greenboro is the Goldilocks of freezing rain conditions… not too cold, not too warm, right next to the mountains but not in the mountains. It’s juuuuust right. And that sucks. Especially right now. “When we get moisture, it usually comes from the Gulf, which is warm. So, the fact that cold air can get ‘stuck’ here is bad news,” Buckley says. “On days like today it can be 30 at the ground and 50 above our heads, and that's a recipe for ice.”
I have not discovered anything new here. In fact, I’m sure any meteorologist that might stumble across this would probably be screaming duhhhhhhhhhhhh at their screens while replying with something like “THUNDERSNOW IS MUCH COOLER.” But! Later on today, if you’re flushing your toilets with water you stored up in your bathtub while huddling around your stove’s gas burners for warmth, you can at least complain with accuracy once you’re able to log back on to Facebook. Or, you can look to escape, either to the coast, or … into the sky. “If you went up in a hot air balloon today,” Buckley says, “it would be more pleasant.”
Big thank you to Brad Panovich, Tim Buckley, and Eric Webb
I, Jeremy Markovich, am a journalist, writer, and producer based outside of Greensboro, North Carolina. If you liked this, you might like Away Message, my podcast about North Carolina’s hard-to-find people, places, and things. Season 4 was all about the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
Author avatar by Rich Barrett.
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