WEATHER NEWS: Canaan Valley: A slice of Canada just 125 miles from Washington
The first flakes start flying by October most years and snow often remains on the ground until around Mother’s Day. Its temperature has plunged as low as minus-31 degrees. Fairbanks, Alaska, has a longer growing season.
This sure does not sound like a place that’s just a three-hour drive from Washington. Alas, it is.
Canaan Valley is the place. Parts of it are described as “a little bit of Canada gone astray.” The weather is more like that of a location at a much higher latitude.
The valley’s geography helps shape its uniquely cold and snowy Mid-Atlantic climate.
Sitting less than 10 miles from the far western Maryland border with West Virginia, it is located near where the Allegheny Plateau reaches the eastern Continental Divide. About 50 square miles in size, it is the highest elevation large valley in the eastern United States.
The elevation of the valley rim averages about 4,000 feet, with some peaks near 4,500 feet. The valley floor — extraordinarily flat, dotted with stands of windblown pines, rocky outcrops and marshy meadows — sits at a more modest elevation of about 3,200 feet, but that’s unusually high for a valley.
The oblong, bowl-shaped indentation sits punctured into the West Virginia high country. Stretching from southwest to northeast, nearby small towns — former coal and lumber hubs — include Davis and Thomas. Only several hundred people live in the valley itself, although the number of visitors swells during winter and summer with people seeking outdoor fun. Several ski areas line the valley’s hilly edges.
Fortunately for these ski areas, there’s no shortage of snow.
The valley floor averages about 150 inches of snow per year, according to Bob Leffler, a retired climatologist who worked for decades at the National Weather Service. The ridges along the rim can see upward of 170 inches per year, he said. That is about 12 times Washington’s average winter snowfall.
The area sees so much snow not only because it’s high and very cold, but also because it’s positioned to intercept moisture arriving from the west and northwest. The valley sits in the “upslope” region of the Allegheny Plateau, where air is forced up the windward facing terrain. Rising air naturally condenses, develops clouds and often produces precipitation that spreads over the valley. Sometimes, snow bands that develop over Lake Erie even reach the area.
Since the winter of 2001-2002, four seasons have surpassed 200 inches on the northern edge of the valley in Canaan Heights. The snowiest of that bunch was the winter of 2009-2010, when 251 inches was measured by Dave Lesher, a cooperative Weather Service observer. That was 4.5 times more snow than Washington recorded that winter, its snowiest on record.
The valley’s snowy climate is supported by its exceptional cold.
Leffler, who avidly tracks and forecasts the area’s weather, says the valley’s flatness and high elevation make it a “textbook cold sink.”
On clear, calm nights, solar energy that gathers during the day escapes into the atmosphere. Since cold air is denser than warm air, it settles like molasses along the valley floor and is trapped by the surrounding terrain. On some mornings, Canaan Valley boasts some of the lowest temperatures in the eastern U.S.
In October, a weather station managed by Virginia Tech recorded 28 freezing nights. Washington didn’t see its first freeze until Nov. 18.
Dave Carroll, a professor at Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, is working to better understand the climate of the valley and its extremes.
He and his students have spent recent years sowing a network of weather stations across the region’s high country.
“We intentionally sought out locations that we suspected were particularly cold spots,” Carroll said in an email. The data collected is publicly available, broadcast live to the internet.
Weather observations from the past are relatively scant in much of West Virginia, away from the few population centers. This leads to uncertainty on some of the records.
The official record low for the state is minus-37 degrees, which was recorded in Lewisburg — about 100 miles south of Canaan Valley — on Dec. 30, 1917. Another relatively high-elevation valley, the town is certainly a cold spot, but probably not the coldest.
“I believe West Virginia’s true record low would likely occur in a place like Canaan Valley and would likely be similar to record lows of states further north, such as those around the Great Lakes or New England,” Carroll said. “Temperatures in the -50 Fahrenheit range would seem plausible, but we really don’t know.”