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DestinationFAY: It's Hot, It's Cold; It's Fayetteville


By Chick Jacobs

MOST FOLKS THINK OF OUR CITY as the home of unrelenting heat and humidity, where an outdoor stroll in the summer is like visiting the devil’s outhouse, but that’s selling us short. The devil’s outhouse doesn’t have mosquitoes.

Besides, things can change fast. One day, it’s sunny and 80 degrees. The next, you’re covering the plants with a sheet to ward off frost. One day, there’s a threat of snow or sleet. The next, the only thing accumulating is a choking cloud of pollen. In between, there’s a whirlwind of weather, from hurricanes, tornadoes, even a blizzard at Christmas. Longtime residents know there are two stretches of traditionally blissful weather. The first, running from April into mid-May, sees the city explode in a delightful drapery of azaleas and dogwoods. In the early fall, temperatures slowly slide into crisp, cool evenings and generally dry days … provided there are no hurricanes.

But from late May to fall, the combination of heat and humidity can make outdoor activity a sticky sauna. The average high temperature in summer is about 92 degrees, but it’s gotten as hot as 110 degrees in Fayetteville. That stands as the hottest recorded temperature in North Carolina.

Want a nice, sunshiny day for an outdoor event? Pick Oct. 30. Historically, that’s the day least likely to see precipitation. The most likely rainy day is Aug. 6. Fayetteville’s lively climate is primarily a result of location. Nestled in a geographic area called the Sandhills of North Carolina, the region is subject to summer heat and humidity working north from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer conditions are more akin to northern Florida than the North Carolina mountains. The jet stream tends to draw moisture and heat north during the spring and summer, pulling it east of the Appalachian Mountains. We get occasional relief when cooling breezes from the Atlantic work inland. Even then, Fayetteville is never far from heat. The temperature has topped 100 degrees in October, and we’ve seen 80-plus degree days every month but January for the past five years.

That combination of warmth and humidity creates a climate of potential severe weather much of the year. Strong storms, some spawning tornadoes, can occur every spring. Fayetteville suffered a severe EF-3 tornado that ripped through the northern part of the city in 2011 and recorded one of the state’s only three February F3 tornadoes in 1971.

Summers give way to languid heat, punctuated by scattered afternoon showers. The average daily high temperature slips above 90 degrees in June and doesn’t drop again until September. When humidity is factored in, the city can see several consecutive days above 100 degrees on the heat index. Late summer to early fall is the peak of hurricane season, when storms form off the African coast and churn across the Atlantic. Several storms have spent their share of wind and rain here. In 1954, Hurricane Hazel lashed the city with winds topping 100 mph. Hurricane Fran in 1996 was even more destructive, while hurricanes Matthew and Florence in the past decade unleased historic deluges.

It may seem strange that a place that gets so warm could also see major snowstorms, but Fayetteville has a history of winter weather. Geography helps insulate the city from the crippling ice storms that hit the Piedmont and Foothills, but we’ve had snowfalls as early as late November and as late as early spring. Snow totals of a half-foot or more are common historically, including a white Christmas as recently as 2010.

In short, any month can be memorable for weather in Fayetteville. Here are a few examples:

JAN. 30, 1965: Ice storms are uncommon in Fayetteville. Lightning in winter is even rarer. But both combined in a particularly nasty storm than left the region caked in up to an inch of ice on this date. Compounding matters, lightning struck a rural church and fire crews were unable to navigate the treacherous roads to save it.
FEB. 22, 1971: Only three EF-3 tornadoes have hit North Carolina in February. This was one of them. Part of a multi-state outbreak, the funnel touched down just north of Eutaw Village, slipping between Fayetteville State University and Clark Park before heading northeast just south of Wade. Growing as wide as a football field at times, the tornado killed two people and damaged or destroyed more than 350 homes before it lifted in Pitt County.
MARCH 25, 1971: Yes, it can snow in Fayetteville in spring. The last time it happened was 50 years ago, when a late-season pocket of cold air turned rain from a passing storm system into a surprising snow. Fayetteville picked up two inches of heavy cement-like snow and the ground was covered as far south as Lumberton.

APRIL 16, 2011: A pack of devastating tornadoes ripped through central North Carolina, including one that touched down near U.S. 401 north of Cliffdale. Damage was most severe along Riley Road in the Summerchase and Cottonade subdivisions, with damage to Loyd Auman Elementary School, Fort Bragg, Pine Forest High School and the Goodyear Tire plant. In all, the storm damaged 1,000 homes and 40 businesses in the area, causing $100 million in damage in Cumberland County.
MAY 8, 1989: Usually, we’re getting ready for hot weather in early May. But on this date, temperatures in rural areas near Fayetteville plunged to near freezing. The low of 29 in Lumberton remains the coldest recorded May temperature in the region.

JUNE is the month we say hello to two things: high temperatures and biting bugs. Fayetteville’s average high temp in June jumps into the upper 80s, with occasional flirtations with 100 degrees. That puts gnats and mosquitoes, who have likely been active already, into hyper-drive. Gardeners will also see swarms of sap-sucking whiteflies.
JULY 1986: There’s hot … then there's “so hot the devil gave up, packed up, and left town” hot. July of 1986 was one of the latter. Fayetteville topped 100 degrees several times that memorable month, with a heat index topping 115 degrees a half-dozen days.
AUGUST 21, 1983: A brutal heatwave cloaked the Carolinas in dangerously hot air, but nowhere was it hotter than Fayetteville for about a week. The hottest reading was 110 degrees, not including the heat index. It remains the hottest temperature recorded in North Carolina.
SEPTEMBER is the month to watch for tropical storms and hurricanes hitting North Carolina. More than two dozen have reached N.C., and two major storms hit Fayetteville. In 1996, Hurricane Fran roared through with top winds of 79 mph, knocking out power for as much as two weeks. In 2018, Hurricane Florence sloshed across southeastern North Carolina, dumping up to 3 feet of rain. Fayetteville received 15 inches of rain in a three-day period.
OCTOBER: This month in Fayetteville weather history is dominated by hurricanes. Hurricane Hazel, the only Cat 4 hurricane to make landfall in N.C. history, roared through Fayetteville on Oct. 15, 1954. Top wind gusts in town reached 110 mph. Hurricane Matthew arrived on Oct. 8, 2016, giving Fayetteville a record one-day rainfall total of 14

NOVEMBER: It has snowed in Fayetteville in November, though not in recent memory. However, the temperature has also approached 90 degrees. Small wonder that the average high temperature falls about 13 degrees during the month.

DECEMBER: I couldn’t decide between a cold Christmas or a white Christmas, so how about both? On Christmas Eve, 1983, temperatures in the region cratered at 6 degrees … then dropped to zero two nights later as pipes froze like ice pops across the county. A more pleasant Christmas memory came in 2010, as a potent winter storm moved into the region late Christmas night. Dumping snow at rates of two inches per hour, it left Fayetteville with 8-10 inches of snow and delighted families with nonstop sledding at Rowan Park.