Raleigh enjoys a temperate climate that can surprise with ease. Hailstorms, blizzards, damaging thunderstorms, and sustained droughts have all played havoc with Raleigh. The Great Blizzard of 1899 brought 17.7 inches, which record was not broken until 1927. In this century, late January 2000 brought 18 inches of snow that closed school for about 3 weeks. Perhaps the most infamous weather event in Raleigh history was an ice storm in 2005 that lay a mere half inch of slick ice on every surface but created an Armageddon of gridlock across the town, stranding hundreds and keeping dozens of schoolchildren camped at school overnight . Historically we average about 6 inches of snow a year; in the last decade that dropped to under 5 inches. Our diverse seasons provide the outdoor naturalist with challenges and pleasures alike – within two months in fall, one can get short of breath in a stagnant sauna of hot air, then have a sinking cold air mass flow as a discernible fluid over your hat brim and down your cheeks. Each season provides unique natural experiences.
Hurricanes pound North Carolina on a regular basis, and many of these have affected Raleigh. Hurricane Hazel, which came ashore in October 1954 and was nicknamed “the Bulldozer,” was at full strength when it hit Raleigh and flattened everything in its path. Hurricane Fran in 1996 changed the face of Raleigh dramatically by shearing hundreds of trees across the city. North Carolina, for the first time in history, declared all 100 counties a disaster zone, and 24 deaths were reported statewide. The most destructive hurricane to ever hit Raleigh made water, not wind, its weapon. Hurricane Floyd in 1999 was preceded by a tropical storm that saturated the ground and filled the waterways. When Floyd hit Wilmington and slowly moved across the state, some areas in eastern North Carolina had rain for 60 straight hours. The result was a deluge that claimed 52 lives, mostly from flooding, and totaled over 6 billion dollars in damages. The Neuse River reached 500 year flood levels and flooding continued for weeks after the storm. These storms perform a natural role in opening the canopy of tree cover and letting sunlight promote young trees and diverse ground cover, even when the losses are painful. Edna Metz Wells Park by Cameron Village presents a good microcosm of Fran damage and the slow fitful succession that occurs in an urban natural setting after such a tree loss. Out at Umstead Park, the same storm’s ravages are being used in a long term study of such recovery processes in a pine forest.
Normal rain in Raleigh follows seasonal patterns, with spring and fall slightly drier, but our generous rainfall of 42 inches or so is relatively evenly spread across the year. Our specific climate classification is humid sub-tropical, with the mountains shielding the Piedmont from Midwestern air masses. Raleigh’s average temperature in January is 40 degrees, in August it is 77 degrees. Summer popcorn storms punctuate the hot dry summer days with occasional quick deluges. Droughts are typical for the area but affect man-made landscapes far more than natural ones, which are adapted to survive them.
Raleigh could experience an earthquake, but that chances of a direct hit in the next 50 years are less than 1%. We do sometimes feel earthquakes, such as the 5.8 tremor that struck Virginia in August of 2011 and rattled homes and businesses across the Triangle. Tornadoes threaten on a regular basis: the April 2011 tornado that created much damage and destroyed almost 1500 trees in Raleigh was part of a massive outbreak of tornadoes across the South. The tree loss in downtown cemeteries was particularly distressing: in Raleigh City Cemetery and Mount Hope Cemetery in south Raleigh, beautiful old cedar trees were torn down or truncated by the winds.
The 2014 year has been unusual, to say the least, with snow flurries late in March and general delays/risks with spring blossoms. But being in the borderline area between northern cold and southern warm has always been Raleigh’s fate. We can thank that factor for our amazing diversity of trees – and resign ourselves to enjoying the elements of surprise.