Winter at the beach has always been my favorite time of the year on Hatteras and Ocracoke.
Visitors are few and far between. Traffic on the highway is almost non-existent. The few stores and restaurants still open are never crowded. You know almost everyone you encounter while doing errands in the villages. And everyone has time to stop and chat.
The beach is as beautiful in the winter as it is in the summer – just in a different way. It’s pretty deserted most days, except for a few walkers, beachcombers, and fishermen. Plenty of shells and other treasures wash up in winter storms, and dolphin frolic close to shore. You can even see a whale offshore at times or a seal resting on the beach.
The sky is often that deep, clear “Carolina” blue, and the sunsets in winter are the best of the year.
And the nice thing is that the winter temperatures are quite nice on the islands – if the wind isn’t blowing too hard.
But not this year. And not last year either.
The beach and the sky are still gorgeous, but there are very few beachcombers or fishermen. You run into few neighbors when you go out because most of them are hibernating.
The winter this year has been more than frightful – by island standards.
Fall was very nice with average temperatures. The average high temperature here in November was 57.1, just a half degree below normal.
December started with a balmy 70 degrees and ended with a decent 53 on New Year’s Eve.
In between, we had very, very cold temperatures.
The average temperature in December was 40.5 degrees, which is 9.5 degrees below the normal.
The average daily high in December is 57 degrees. After Dec. 1, we never saw that again until the end of the month. The low was below freezing 13 nights.
Chris Collins, a forecaster at the National Weather Service in Newport, N.C., said it was the coldest December at the weather office since it was moved there in 1994.
On Hatteras and Ocracoke, we saw snow coming down twice, but there was no accumulation. North of Oregon Inlet, there were several inches of snow on both occasions.
January also started nicely with a high of 60 degrees. However, the deep freeze quickly returned.
For the first 12 days of January, the average temperature has been 40.1 degrees, which is 6 degrees below normal. No day since New Year’s weekend has approached the average high temperature of 54 degrees, and 13 nights have been below freezing. We saw a brief – like 30-minute – heavy snow shower on Jan. 8 with no accumulation.
It’s also been constantly windy, even for the Outer Banks, making being outside even more miserable.
The propane trucks have been busy delivering fuel, the heat pumps are running constantly, and the smell of wood smoke is in the air.
I haven’t even seen many kids in shorts lately, which is a common sight on the islands, even in winter. And the fishing has been pretty sorry both inshore and offshore.
Forecaster Collins has some better news for us today.
“There will be a gradual pattern shift in the next few days,” he says.
The wind will shift to the southwest with gradually rising temperature, which, he said, could reach 60 by next Tuesday.
The shifting patterns in the atmosphere include a change in what the weather people call the North Atlantic Oscillation, which for the second winter in a row has kept cold air blocked in the south and keeping the jet stream continually diving south bringing storms and cold air to the southern United States.
“We were supposed to have a warm, mild winter, but it didn’t work out that way,” Collins said.
“This can only last so long,” he added.
And he said that the jet stream pattern is forecast to break down in late January or early February. Then we have a chance of returning to more seasonal temperatures with highs in the mid-fifties – which will be a real heat wave.
While some have chosen to hibernate this winter, others have ventured out from time to time and still enjoyed the winter beach.
My son, daughter-in-law, and their three children came to visit the week after Christmas, and, despite the weather, they enjoyed the beach for a few hours every day, took the ferry to Ocracoke, and were amused by a “Hatteras-style” Christmas tree at Hatteras Inlet, decorated with some ornaments, a ribbon or two, and beer cans.
They found some nice treasures on the beach – small sea biscuits, starfish, baby’s ears, and a few Scotch bonnets.
And we joined friends for a bonfire at Cape Point on New Year’s Eve. By that time it was a downright balmy 50 degrees with no wind.
I know we won’t find much sympathy from our friends in the Northeast with their foot or more of snow, in the Midwest with below zero temperatures, or in Atlanta with freezing rain and ice that shut down the city for several days.
But, hey, let us grouse for just a little while. It’s cold here and we aren’t used to it!
ABOUT THE SLIDE SHOW
Click here to see a slide show of photographs taken by my granddaughter, Abby Nolan, who is 12, and my colleague’s daughter, Hannah Barnett, who is 10. They were taken on at Cape Point, Hatteras Inlet, South Beach in Frisco, and North Point on Ocracoke. The folks on horseback were on Highway 12 on Ocracoke, and the “Hatteras-style” Christmas tree was at Hatteras Inlet.