Winter weather might be just down the road for the Shenandoah Valley as it prepares for a potential ice storm on Thursday.
As temperatures continue to drop, drivers and employers are on the lookout for more than snow. Brian Lasorsa, a meteorologist in the Sterling office of the National Weather Service, said the biggest impact from ice would be freezing rain — rain that turns to ice as it hits the ground.
“At this point, we don’t have any specific accumulations forecast, but there is potential for ice accumulation,” Lasorsa said. “The better chances might be at some of the higher elevations.”
The National Weather Service has an experimental model that shows the threat of a winter storm three to seven days out, and determines the likelihood of different areas experiencing storms. According to the tracker, the Shenandoah Valley and other areas west of the Blue Ridge Mountains have an “enhanced” winter storm threat — meaning the primary concern is disruption of travel.
Road conditions will determine whether schools are open, Greg Drescher, superintendent of Warren County Public Schools, wrote in an email on Monday.
“The decision to start school is based primarily on, are buses able to travel safely to and from school on their regular routes,” Drescher wrote. “By 4:30 or 5:00 a.m., our transportation director gives me a call with his findings and recommendation. After discussion of the conditions, I make the call to go on a regular schedule, go on a delayed schedule or close schools altogether. We do our best to make the call by 5:30 a.m.”
Mark Johnston, superintendent of Shenandoah County Public Schools, said he and his transportation supervisor follow similar protocols. Starting a couple of days out, Johnston and his staff watch forecasts from the National Weather Service and road temperatures from the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Around 3:30 a.m. on the day in question, Johnston and his transportation supervisor will decide whether they will close the school, delay the start or keep it open. If there is any question, Johnston said, they will check back in around 5 a.m. to make a decision before buses leave.
“We also will sometimes talk with other superintendents,” Johnston said. “That’s probably the least important thing because our conditions vary so much by region.”
Regardless of whether road conditions are slick because of ice or snow, Johnston said his decision comes down to the safety of drivers and getting kids to and from school safe.
Road conditions are the key to determine school schedules because a little less than half of Warren County students take the bus, Drescher wrote. Factors that Drescher and others consider are whether roads have been treated, how many schools are affected and whether areas where kids wait for buses are safe.
Ken Slack, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said VDOT tries to pre-treat roads, but if there is freezing rain, conditions could be hazardous.
“The number one thing I would say is freezing rain is the most treacherous kind of surface to deal with,” Slack said. “We do have chemicals and abrasives we can apply but people need to be extremely cautious.”
Slack said driving should be avoided if possible but if drivers have to go out, they should be aware of the conditions and their surroundings.
“Give yourself a lot of extra space around you and everything around you,” Slack said. “Go slow around curves and [apply] gentle pressure on brakes.”
Besides factors under the driver’s control, motorists need to pay attention to what kind of road they are driving on, Slack said. While some roads will stay warm enough to prevent rain from freezing, areas like bridges and overpasses will remain cooler — causing ice to build up before it does on normal roads.
The National Weather Service’s forecast for the week shows temperatures dipping below freezing every evening through Thursday. Friday is forecast for the highest temperature, reaching 49 degrees.
Temperatures will be coldest between Wednesday night — 29 degrees — and Thursday — a projected high of 35 degrees.
The likelihood of an ice storm coming through the valley depends on when the rain on Thursday starts, Lasorsa said. If the rain starts early in the morning or overnight on Wednesday, the cooler weather is more likely to turn that rain into ice.