Southwest and Southside Virginia experienced a year of fire, smoke, and lack of snow in 2023, highlighting the impacts of climate change and drought on the region.
Wildfire consumes thousands of acres in Jefferson National Forest
One of the most devastating events of the year was the wildfire that broke out in the Jefferson National Forest north of Big Island in November. The fire, officially known as the Matts Creek Fire, burned 6,835 acres and threatened several homes and structures in Bedford and Rockbridge counties. It was the biggest wildfire across Virginia this fall, an annual fire season that was exacerbated by an ongoing drought.
The fire was first reported on Nov. 12 and took more than a week to contain. It was fought by firefighters from across the country, who used bulldozers, helicopters, and air tankers to create and reinforce containment lines. The fire did not cross the James River or the Blue Ridge Parkway, but it caused road closures, evacuations, and power outages in the area. It also damaged the Appalachian Trail and other recreational facilities in the forest.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but officials suspect it was human-caused. The fire was one of several that occurred in the region in 2023, including a 500-acre fire in Giles County in October and a 300-acre fire in Craig County in September.
Smoke from wildfires affects air quality and health
The smoke from the Matts Creek Fire and other wildfires in the region had a negative impact on the air quality and health of Southwest and Southside Virginia residents. The smoke contained fine particles that can irritate the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, and worsen respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. The smoke also reduced visibility and created a haze over the mountains and valleys.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality issued several air quality alerts and advisories throughout the year, warning people to limit their outdoor activities and exposure to the smoke. The agency also provided real-time air quality data and forecasts on its website and mobile app. The agency advised people to follow the recommendations of their health care providers and local health departments, and to use air filters and purifiers indoors.
The smoke from the wildfires also affected the climate and weather of the region, creating a feedback loop that could worsen the fire risk and drought. The smoke can block sunlight and lower the temperature, reducing evaporation and precipitation. The smoke can also create clouds that can produce lightning, which can ignite more fires. The smoke can also alter the wind patterns and jet stream, affecting the weather systems and storm tracks.
Lack of snow reflects warmer and drier conditions
Another sign of the changing climate and weather in Southwest and Southside Virginia was the lack of snow in 2023. The region received below-average snowfall and above-average temperatures throughout the year, especially in the winter months. The region also faced a moderate to severe drought that lasted for most of the year.
The lack of snow had various consequences for the region, including reduced water supply, increased fire danger, lower crop yields, and less tourism and recreation. The lack of snow also affected the wildlife and ecosystems of the region, altering the habitats, food sources, and migration patterns of various species. The lack of snow also reduced the albedo, or reflectivity, of the land surface, which can increase the absorption of solar radiation and further warm the region.
The lack of snow in 2023 was part of a long-term trend of declining snowfall and rising temperatures in Southwest and Southside Virginia, as well as the rest of the state and the country. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average annual snowfall in Virginia has decreased by about 20% since 1970, while the average annual temperature has increased by about 2°F. The agency projects that these trends will continue and intensify in the future, as greenhouse gas emissions and global warming increase.
Southwest and Southside Virginia need to adapt and mitigate
The extreme weather events of 2023 highlighted the need for Southwest and Southside Virginia to adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change and drought. The region needs to implement strategies and policies that can reduce the risk and impact of wildfires, improve the air quality and health of the residents, conserve and manage the water resources, support the agriculture and tourism industries, and protect the wildlife and ecosystems.
Some of the actions that the region can take include:
- Creating and maintaining defensible space around homes and structures, and following fire safety and prevention guidelines.
- Monitoring and reporting the air quality and health conditions, and following the recommendations of the authorities and health care providers.
- Using water wisely and efficiently, and following the water restrictions and conservation measures.
- Diversifying and adapting the crops and livestock, and using irrigation and drought-resistant practices.
- Promoting and supporting the outdoor recreation and tourism businesses, and offering alternative and year-round activities.
- Restoring and enhancing the habitats and corridors of the native species, and managing the invasive and pest species.
The region also needs to join the efforts of the state and the country to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions and slow down the global warming that is driving the climate change and drought. The region can adopt and support the renewable and clean energy sources, the energy efficiency and conservation measures, the low-carbon and green transportation modes, and the carbon sequestration and storage methods.
Southwest and Southside Virginia have a rich and diverse natural and cultural heritage that is worth preserving and protecting. The region also has a resilient and innovative spirit that can overcome the challenges and seize the opportunities of the changing climate and weather. The region can work together and with the rest of the state and the country to create a sustainable and prosperous future for itself and the generations to come.