Virginia Tropical Cyclone Climatology

Statistics. On average, a tropical storm, or its remnants, can be expected to impact the Old Dominion yearly, with hurricanes expected once every 2.3 years. These averages are competitive to what is seen down south along the Gulf coast, even though major hurricanes are far more rare.

The chart below breaks down the tropical storm and hurricane distribution by decade starting at 1851...the year the hurricane database begins for the North Atlantic, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico. Tropical storms and hurricane categories before 1886 were determined by damage done across the area. Surprisingly, some of the most active decades for Virginia were during the "Little Ice Age", a period of global coolness, that lasted from around 1870 to 1900. One would expect more storms to impact the state during warmer years than cool years, but this is not the case.


From the graph above, there appears to be a fifty year cycle in the number of tropical storms and hurricanes in and nearby Virginia. The peak of the cycle tends to last around 15 years.

Movement. In most cases, tropical cyclones have moved, regardless of the month, from southwest to northeast across Virginia. There are some examples were storms crossed from east to west or vice versa, but that is quite uncommon. To the lower right is a map showing the tracks hurricanes have taken past Virginia Beach during a 111 year period. The mean forward motion of tropical cyclones through the area is 17.3 knots...or 20 mph. This is normal as tropical cyclones round the western periphery of the Azores- Bermuda High which dominates the flow across the Atlantic during summer months.  To the lower right shows the distribution of translational speed past Virginia Beach, courtesy of the National Hurricane Center.

Pressure.  The tracks of most tropical 
cyclones  that have affected Virginia 
are concentrated near the lower coast.   
Therefore, the lowest pressures 
measured from these storms were 
mainly in the  area around Norfolk.  
Only one category three  hurricane is 
known to have passed near Virginia, 
thus pressures reported across the state
are higher that those you would find 
along the Gulf or South Atlantic coasts.
 To the right is a chart showing the ten
lowest pressures measured across the 
state from hurricanes.  Note how all the
readings are from  Donna (1960), Floyd
(1999), the Chesapeake-Potomac 
Hurricane (1933), and Hazel (1954).
             Lowest Pressures in 
         Virginia from hurricanes

Pressure         Dates               Location
28.51"         9/12/1960          Virginia Beach
28.64"         9/12/1960          Norfolk
28.64"         9/16/1999          Cheasapeake Light
28.67"         8/23/1933          Cape Henry
28.68"        10/15/1954         Virginia Beach
28.68"         8/23/1933          Norfolk
28.69"         8/23/1933          Richmond
28.71"        10/15/1954         Blackstone
28.74"        10/15/1954         Gordonsville
28.74"         9/12/1960          Norfolk NAS


           Highest Winds Reported in 
             Virginia from Hurricanes

   Gust               Dates             Location
150 mph         9/14/1944      Cape Henry
138 mph         9/12/1960      Chesapeake
                                               Light Ship
130 mph        10/15/1954     Hampton
110 mph         7/12/1996      South Island 
104 mph         9/27/1985      South Island 
104 mph         8/27/1998      Cape Henry
104 mph         8/17/1986      South Island 
100 mph         8/18/1879      Cape Henry
100 mph        4/6-7/1889     Cape Henry
100 mph        10/15/1954     Norfolk
100 mph          9/19/1999     James River 

Winds.  Coastal sections of Virginia get 
lashed  with sustained winds of hurricane
force about every decade.  Cape Henry has
twelve occurrences while Norfolk has six
in the 128-year period ending in 1998.  If 
you include winds of tropical storm force, 
Cape Henry has reported them 73 years 
while Norfolk experienced gales 46 years.
The anemometer at Cape Henry is higher 
than at Norfolk, which explains the 
increased frequency at that site.  Friction 
close to the  ground tends to dampen 
stronger winds from aloft.   Below are 
charts showing maximum winds for Cape
Henry and Norfolk.  To the left is a listing
of wind gusts at or above 100 mph reported




Rainfall. The most common effect of a tropical cyclone passing by Virginia is its associated rainfall. The heaviest rain in a truly tropical cyclone, outside of terrain effects, occurs to the east of the track. However, many systems that pass this far to the north exhibit some non-tropical characteristics, such as cold/dry air wrapping around the west and south sides of the circulation. When this happens, the rainfall distribution changes markedly. The maximum rainfall can then be expected to be just west of the track, and well to the east, outside the reach of the dry air. Severe weather, such as microbursts, tornadoes, and hail tend to be more common with this dry air intrusion, mainly to the east of the track.  To the lower right is a chart of the ten highest rainfall amounts, in the Old Dominion, to be measured in association with a tropical cyclone.

Virginia has some special considerations
that  can affect rainfall. Mountains to the
west act  as a perfect mechanism for 
upward motion  when a sustained east 
wind is present, and can lead to flash 
flooding and landslides in that region.
Also, as a tropical system approaches
from the south, a baroclinic boundary 
sets up between the moist Atlantic Ocean 
and the  relatively drier landmass to the 
west. This  boundary can set up two or 
three days in advance of a tropical storm, 
and can lead up to prolonged heavy rains 
across coastal sections.  As the cyclone
advances north, the boundary will slowly 
shift west, but rarely makes it west of a
Richmond/Washington, D.C. line.
         Heaviest Rains in Virginia from 
      Tropical Cyclones and their Remnants

Amount        Dates                      Location
27.00"           8/19-20/1969        Nelson County
19.77"           11/02-07/1985      2 NE Montebello
18.13"           9/14-16/1999        Yorktown
16.57"           9/14-16/1999        Newport News
16.00"           6/17-24/1972        Chantilly
14.30"           9/14-16/1999        James City
14.30"           9/05-09/1996        Tom's Branch 
14.18"           6/17-24/1972        Centreville
14.17"           9/05-09/1996        Luray 5 SE
13.60"           6/17-24/1972        Big Meadows

 Return to Virginia Hurricane History