The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Tuesday, 16 January 2024 19:33

UPDATED: In much of Tennessee Valley, focus now turns to possible flooding as record snowpack rapidly recedes

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Snow day 160A child enjoys a snow day on the Norris Commons in the aftermath of the most potent snowstorm to affect the area since 1996.  Abigail Baxter/Hellbender Press

UPDATED 1/24: Focus turns to flooding as snow melts and heavy rains approach

30-year winter storm hits Tennessee Valley ahead of a vicious cold front

KNOXVILLE — A widespread and potent winter storm hit the central Tennessee Valley on Jan. 15-16, disrupting travel and commerce as residents grappled with the most significant snowstorm to hit the area in 30 years. Arctic air subsequently flooded the region Jan. 18-19 with lows in Knoxville hitting 0º.

As of Jan. 24, most snow had melted across the Knoxville area, washed away in part by moderate rain and temperatures in the 50s. A flood watch is in effect for most of East Tennessee through the evening of Jan. 25. Two to 3 inches rain could fall across the area, compounding runoff from melting snow, according to the National Weather Service.

At least 36 people died as a result of the winter storm in Tennessee.

The National Weather Service noted a few unique hallmarks of the unusually potent winter storm, namely it’s stout snowfall totals and the fact such frigid air settled over the snowpack, freezing roads solid for more than a week. It was the longest period of time for more than 4 inches of snow to cover the ground in the Knoxville area since 1910, and many 10-inch totals were reported. Knox County and other school districts missed at least a week of school.

Previous reporting:

The 10-inch snowfall left deer browsing shrubbery and low-hanging trees above the snow in Norris, north of Knoxville, and birds flocked to neighborhood feeders. Children who had never seen such substantial snow careened down slopes on a variety of sleds.

The powdery nature of the snow and a lack of wind limited infrastructure impacts from the area’s biggest snowfall since 1996. Many motorists, however, abandoned vehicles on Knox and Anderson county roads overnight Sunday into Monday and beyond.

Still, the snow and cold persists. Schools are closed for the week in Anderson, Knox and other East Tennessee counties that experienced potent snow bands moving northeast up the Tennessee Valley.

Sunshine melted some snow on Wednesday, but overnight lows into Thursday will again be in the single digits, with sharp wind chills.

A more moderate front is projected to move through East Tennessee on Thursday evening, potentially bringing a glaze of ice on top of fallen snow. 

Preliminary snowfall totals from Jan. 14-15 in the metro area ranged from about 8.5 inches in Oak Ridge to 9 inches in Norris and downtown Knoxville, according to the National Weather Service station in Morristown. Some locations reported a foot of snow. 

The snow largely fell in bands in Knoxville and just north of I-40 on Monday, leaving some areas devoid of anticipated snowfall.

0A snowstorm as seen from a Norris window Jan. 16, 2024.  Abigail Baxter/Hellbender Press

In some areas near the Smokies foothills, a ‘pretty tight snowfall gradient’ led to only mixed wintry precipitation, said weather service meteorologist Sam Roberts. 

Elsewhere, along a swath from Dayton to the upper valley, a substantial snowstorm left accumulations approaching 1 foot in some areas. But the snow was powdery and there was little wind, allowing the region to largely escape the common woes of heavy snow. The storm had its genesis in a front that tracked along the Southeastern coast and threw precipitation over the Appalachians into colder air approaching the region from the west. It could have been worse.

Children and adults gathered at the Norris Commons on Jan. 15-16 to enjoy community and fun following a snowstorm.  Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press

“It (was) a lighter snow; definitely not heavy, wet snow generally associated with power outages,” Roberts said.

A lack of high winds also lessened impacts associated with heavy snow, said Nathan Wellington, also a meteorologist at the Morristown office.

“Not having a lot of wind really helps,” he said, noting that high wind events in the Smokies earlier this month saw 105 mph winds at Cove Mountain and 85 mph at Camp Creek Elementary School in Greene County.

That being said, the next act features the cold.

A -12º windchill is possible in some areas of East Tennessee, overnight into Jan. 16.  The crests of the Smokies could see windchills of -20º, Wellington said. The National Weather Service has issued a windchill warning for much of East Tennessee through Jan. 17.

The double-tap of snow and frigid temperatures makes this system notable, and is the heaviest snowfall in Knoxville since Feb. 2, 1996, when about 8 inches was recorded in the Knoxville metro area, Wellington said,

He also noted heavy snowfall in March 2022 (6 inches). The heavyweight champ of recent Southern Appalachian snowfalls, the Blizzard of 1993, still weighs in at 13 inches in Knoxville to 60 inches in sections of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That storm featured higher winds and precipitation rates, but was cooked in a climate stew similar to the one that boiled up Jan. 15, 2024.

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Last modified on Sunday, 18 February 2024 23:51
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