Wild Ideas: Baby, the rain must fall   

While many readers may not be familiar with the flawed 1965 film “Baby, the Rain Must Fall,” starring Steve McQueen and Lee Remick, its title popped into my mind as I was pondering 2018 precipitation totals here in Rappahannock County.

By July, many localities in Virginia had broken the annual average for precipitation in the commonwealth, 43 inches. I wanted to check the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website for annual totals in Virginia for 2018, but NOAA, like most other federal agencies, was shut down. I instead just concentrated on Rappahannock, looking at data posted by county residents on our community Listserv, Rappnet, and at 14 years of data collected by Dave Yowell at his weather station in Gid Brown Hollow (GBH), near the town of Washington. Data collected by his station is available on its website.

Data from Dave Yowell’s Gid Brown Hollow weather station shows a record-breaking climb in precipitation in 2018. By Pam Owen

When the drought that started in late summer 2017 finally ended last spring, precipitation quickly caught up. Yowell’s data shows that the amount broke records from the previous 13 years several times, and the final total was remarkable: 74.69 inches (see chart). The average for the thirteen previous years at GBH, 43.64 inches, fit the historical Virginia average. The highest total rainfall for 2004-2017 was 51.37 inches, reached in 2011; the lowest, 33.44 inches, in 2007. The total precipitation for 2017 was 40.54 inches. While daily totals at this weather station this year didn’t break records this year, the frequency of rain helped boost the total. June was the wettest month (10.53 inches), which did not set a record for that month, but the totals for July (8.36 inches) and August (8.63 inches) did.

Karen Henderson reported on Rappnet that Eric Kvarnes’ Weather Underground station, which is “still up and running” south of Yowell’s in Gid Brown, showed 98.3 inches for last year’s total. Missy McCool, who lives not far from Yowell, in Harris Hollow, reported 94.48 inches at her place.

With varying elevations and terrain, from the mountains and hollows of the Blue Ridge to the hills and flats of the Piedmont, Rappahannock has many microclimates. That means precipitation can vary wildly even from one hollow to the next and among different elevations. The next hollow west of Gid Brown is Old Hollow, where I live. At the upper end of the hollow, near the trailhead for Thornton River Trail, in Shenandoah National Park (SNP), Bruce Sloane has also been charting the rainfall. In a recent email, he said he hadn’t totaled all the data yet for 2018 but figured it would surpass 90 inches.

After drought in the latter half of 2017 and early 2018, record-breaking rains have kept stream levels high and caused a host of problems. By Pam Owen

These higher totals come close to averages for Juneau, Alaska, on the southeast coast of Alaska. My brother lives there, and we discussed the weather here and there in our weekly phone call this past weekend. Juneau was built in what is now the Tongass, a large temperate rainforest that is now a national forest. The city averages around 55-92 inches of precipitation per year, depending on the location. This includes an average 88 inches of snow, which is equivalent in water content to about nine inches of rain. Three other Rappahannock residents collecting precipitation data in different spots around the county reported lower totals than those in Gid Brown, Harris and Old hollows but none less than 74 inches.

The rain does have consequences beyond inconvenience and mood-dampening. Among these is undermining and rotting tree roots, bringing trees crashing down. It may also be a factor in poor mast crops (acorns, berries, etc.) anecdotally reported in many places in the county, despite the overall abundance of mast in the Northern Piedmont region, according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Where I live, about a thousand feet up Oventop Mountain, the continual rains have brought down a stream of mud onto my driveway, turning my parking area into a Slip ‘N Slide.

Although this week is mostly forecast to be dry, with only some snow, the last forecast from NOAA that I saw, in the fall, indicated that we are probably looking at a relatively cold, wet winter. I’m starting to reminisce about living in Seattle, where the precipitation average is just 37.49 inches. Instead of the deluges we get here, the precipitation often comes in the form of mist or light rain but typically was more frequent than here, which is depressing and not good for my allergy to mold. However, if the 2018 weather pattern persists, the Pacific Northwest is looking better and better.

One way to make the most out of what may be continued rainy weather is to get out and enjoy nature anyway. Next week, the Clifton Institute, in Warrenton, is offering a workshop on how to identify trees in winter, and the Piedmont Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society is kicking off its Winter Speaker Series with an indoor talk on “historical botany” (see sidebar for details).

© 2019 Pam Owen

January nature events

Learn how to identify trees in winter in a workshop at the Clifton Institute this Saturday (Jan. 19). By Pam Owen

“Winter Tree Identification Workshop” (Saturday, Jan. 19, 1-4 p.m.): Hosted by the Clifton Institute at its property in Warrenton, this workshop provides the tools for identifying many common trees in our area this time of year, when lack of leaves on deciduous trees makes this more difficult. On the walk, Dr. Emily Southgate, a botanist and historical ecologist who is a senior scientist at Hood College, introduces basic terminology used in tree identification and, using trees on the institute’s property as examples, shows how to use identification books and apps. The workshop focuses on native species but may include a few nonnatives. Warm, waterproof footwear is highly recommended; also useful is a hand lens, jackknife and binoculars. At 6712 Blantyre Rd., Warrenton; register at cliftoninstitute.org/events or email education associate Alison Zak at azak@cliftoninstitute.org.

“Historical Botany” talk (Sunday, Jan. 20, 2 p.m.): The Piedmont chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society kicks off this year’s Winter Speaker Series, on historical botany, with a talk by Bert Harris, executive director of the Clifton Institute. Harris explains the organization’s plans to restore the grassland ecosystem using several strategies, including burning. The talk, at Emmanuel Episcopal Church Parish Hall, 9668 Maidstone Road, Delaplane, is free, and refreshments are provided. For more information, email piedmontvnps@gmail.com. The chapter’s Second Sunday walk in Buck Hollow on Jan. 13 is fully booked but check for other walks and winter talks at vnps.org/events.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 340 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

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