Anyone associated with the Grand American Coon Hunt knows well the weather extremes that January in South Carolina can bring. The state is subtropical, but the wintry conditions that have greeted the big dog trials in early January over the decades feel nothing like the tropics.
The years since 2000 offer excellent examples of the severe conditions winter can bring here. During Dec. 4-5, 2002, a large portion of South Carolina received freezing rain and sleet that accumulated to more than an inch and a half in areas of the Upstate. The impact of the storm on the public included several hundred thousand power outages, numerous traffic accidents, and many homes damaged or destroyed by falling trees.
Then came the Great Ice Storm of Jan. 24-26, 2004. It crippled much of Orangeburg and Calhoun counties. Locations from the Midlands to the coast experienced power outages that lasted up to a week. Prior to the January 2004 storm, high temperatures soared into the 60s across South Carolina – a reminder that the caveats of winter weather can strike with little advance warning.
A decade later in 2014, the ice storm PAX resulted in more than 364,000 electrical outages and more than $260 million in damage throughout the state, much of it resulting from falling trees and limbs. The experience of watching and listening as trees came down or apart is not forgotten.
January is the most likely month for freezing rain and sleet in South Carolina, which develop as warm, moist air flows over the top of a cold surface layer in the atmosphere. The depth of the cold air at the surface determines the precipitation type that falls to the ground.
When the cold air is limited to the lowest portion of the atmosphere, raindrops that make contact with objects with temperatures at or below the freezing mark, including trees, power lines and roadways, become coated with a glaze of ice.
Sleet forms when the depth of the cold air is sufficient to freeze the raindrops into pellets of ice. While still a danger to travelers, sleet has a tendency to accumulate less on trees and power lines.
Frequently, however, sleet and freezing rain mix together to create an extremely hazardous situation leaving people without power for days at a time and making travel treacherous.
There’s also the reality of severe weather including thunderstorms and tornadoes – in January.
The good news for the Grand American and everyone visiting Orangeburg this weekend is there isn't a lot of reason to worry.
Unlike a year ago when early January produced some of the coldest days on record, this year’s Grand American will experience mild temperatures with highs in the 60s and lows in the 40s. The forecast for Friday calls for rain with a chance of thunderstorms, which will add to the very wet conditions hunters will find as they go afield for the coon dog trials Friday night and Saturday night. As for Saturday’s big day at Orangeburg County Fairgrounds, the hunt headquarters, sunny skies are expected.
In other words, the conditions will be nice by comparison to some hunts of the past during early January. And the hunters coming here from much colder climates will be able to say again that we don’t know what real winter weather is like.
But then again, the climate here is a primary reason the Grand American more than a half century ago chose Orangeburg as an ideal location for the dog trials that have been called “the Kentucky Derby of coon hunting.”
The Grand American will go on, whether the conditions are like fall or spring, as January can be, or like winter from another place, which is equally possible.
The operative word to visitors and home folks is “enjoy” – no matter the weather.