Weather 2020: A Sampler of the Peculiar

by Tyler Molleur

HARDWICK – Weather events of 2020 took a backseat to other major headlines in what turned out to be an odd year. Despite this, several curious events percolated into Vermont’s meteorological record as we look at a smattering of several random weather items.

photo by Vanessa Fournier | Snow covered logs from the latest storm wait to be cut by Forestry students on the Green Mountain Technology and Career Center Hazen campus

Parched Places: The Story of Drought Conditions

The lack of precipitation has plagued much of the Northeast from the start of the year and north-central Vermont still has a deficit to make up.
As of December 10, the U.S. Drought Monitor classifies parts of Vermont in the Moderate Drought category and these same areas reached Severe Drought in the late summer and early fall. St. Johnsbury saw four months during this time during which precipitation amounts fell 5 to 10 inches below normal.

Precipitation from impact reports suggested that most crops dodged major issues during the growing season, but the stress of arid conditions appeared to bring fall colors out early and dried out soil, grass, and smaller streams.

One day earlier in the season also turned busy for fire departments. On Saturday, May 23, three large woods fires broke out in the afternoon on the South Walden Road and US Route 2 in Cabot. Six fire departments from as far away as Barre were needed for fire suppression on the first call, with seven departments being required to keep the fire on Route 2 from going out of control. A third fire required emergency assistance near Goddard College in Plainfield, with the call coming in shortly after the Route 2 fire.

Forest fire wardens underscored the importance of obtaining a burn permit to the public, but on many occasions these were not available because of the dry, hot, and windy days.

Some Relief, But Not Enough

A cold front sinking south from Canada tapped into some humid conditions on the early morning of July 14. An eruption of a line of thunderstorms moving perpendicularly and slowly along the front triggered several heavy downpours over central Caledonia and eastern Washington counties through the early afternoon.

Weather stations in Cabot and Danville reported rainfall amounts of one to three inches of rain in under four hours. Washouts were reported on the Danville Hill Road in Cabot. The Walden Mountain Road, a Class Four road, was deemed impassible after nearly four inches of rain was reported in that area, and a recovery vehicle was required to assist a stuck vehicle in the days after the heavy rain.

Outside of the immediate heavy rain area, only half an inch to an inch of rain was observed.

More Relief, But Still Not Enough

Vermont received some tropical weather, which partially relieved the drought, but a lack of a direct path from the tropical cyclones inhibited any form of substantial relief.

The first storm to provide rainfall to the region was Tropical Storm Fay, which formed over the waters off the coast of the Carolinas, moving north and making landfall near Atlantic City, N.J., before weakening and tracking through the western Champlain Valley on July 11. The original track predicted the storm would cross central Vermont after losing its tropical characteristics, bringing up to two inches of rain.

The westward shift of the storm track yielded under one inch of rain. A second tropical cyclone, Tropical Storm Isaias, gave the area a second chance for a soaking rain in early August, with one to two inches of rain reported regionwide. Gusty winds brought trees down on Tebbetts Road in Cabot as wind gusts exceeded 40 mph.

Isaias received a rare designation of maintaining its tropical characteristics while crossing into Vermont. Most storms, although still having the potential to produce heavy rains and strong winds, do not make it to Vermont as a tropical storm or hurricane. Only seven other storms, including Irene in 2011, retained tropical cyclone characteristics while moving into Vermont.

Record Heat

Summer 2020 shattered numerous record temperatures as the region experienced an anomalously warm season. Burlington logged July as the warmest month of all time, with a mean average temperature of 76.8 degrees Fahrenheit. The mean average temperature for the three-month period from June through July also ranked the highest since records began in 1892, according to the National Weather Service in Burlington. The NWS added that only one summer month in the past ten years recorded a below-normal value.

Three heat waves were recorded, including one which tied the second-longest heat wave on record, lasting six days. The longest heat wave observed was recorded in 1944 and lasted eight days. The six-day heat wave from June 18-23 sets the record for the longest heat wave ever recorded in June.

Multiple daily records were tied or broken in May, June, and July at official recording stations in Montpelier and St. Johnsbury.

How Did The Snow Fall?

The bookends of winter that balance out the warm summer in the middle produced a reasonable amount of snow but lacked any major block-buster event.

The overall snowfall amount for the 2019-2020 winter season was near average, although several snowfalls in January contributed four to six inches to the snowpack, refreshing the overall depth. A snowstorm on February 7 gave a heftier ten inches to the hills of Cabot and Greensboro. March was a quiet month, before two small snowstorms contributed about half a foot of snow each on April 9, as well as May 9.

Again, a significant snowfall does not look to be in the cards through the conclusion of 2020. The moisture-laden energy that would give us heavy precipitation has focused further to our south, while colder air has remained north and west of us. Both ingredients are necessary to produce a significant snowfall.

The Climate Prediction Center is predicting a winter that is wetter than usual, which may include a couple of heavy snowstorms with the shift of the moisture stream further north and potential outbreaks of cold air, although the dominant trend is for above-average temperatures.
All this remains to be seen as we embrace all that 2021 has to offer.