Virginia

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Virginia

Virginia, officially the Commonwealth of Virginia, is a state in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern regions of the United States, between the Atlantic Coast and the Appalachian Mountains. The geography and climate of the Commonwealth are shaped by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Chesapeake Bay, which provide habitat for much of its flora and fauna. The capital of the Commonwealth is Richmond; Virginia Beach is the most-populous city, and Fairfax County is the most-populous political subdivision. The Commonwealth’s population in 2020 was over 8.65 million, with 36% of them living in the Baltimore–Washington metropolitan area.

Geography

Virginia is located in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern regions of the United States. Virginia has a total area of 42,774.2 square miles (110,784.7 km2), including 3,180.13 square miles (8,236.5 km2) of water, making it the 35th-largest state by area. The Commonwealth is bordered by Maryland and Washington, D.C. to the north and east; by the Atlantic Ocean to the east; by North Carolina to the south; by Tennessee to the southwest; by Kentucky to the west; and by West Virginia to the north and west. Virginia’s boundary with Maryland and Washington, D.C. extends to the low-water mark of the south shore of the Potomac River.

The Commonwealth’s southern border is defined as 36°30′ north latitude, though surveyor error in the 1700s led to deviations of as much as three arcminutes as the North Carolina border moved west. Surveyors appointed by Virginia and Tennessee worked in 1802 and 1803 to reset the border as a line from the summit of White Top Mountain to the top of Tri-State Peak in the Cumberland Mountains. However, errors in this line were discovered in 1856, and Virginia proposed a new surveying commission in 1871, but Tennessee disagreed, and in 1893 the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of the 1803 line in the case Virginia v. Tennessee. One result of this is the division of the city of Bristol between the two states.

Geology and Terrain

The Chesapeake Bay separates the contiguous portion of the Commonwealth from the two-county peninsula of Virginia's Eastern Shore. The bay was formed from the drowned river valley of the ancient Susquehanna River. Many of Virginia's rivers flow into the Chesapeake Bay, including the Potomac, Rappahannock, York, and James, which create three peninsulas in the bay, traditionally referred to as "necks" named Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula, and the Virginia Peninsula from north to south. Sea level rise has eroded the land on Virginia's islands, which include Tangier Island in the bay and Chincoteague, one of 23 barrier islands on the Atlantic coast.

The Tidewater is a coastal plain between the Atlantic coast and the fall line. It includes the Eastern Shore and major estuaries of Chesapeake Bay. The Piedmont is a series of sedimentary and igneous rock-based foothills east of the mountains which were formed in the Mesozoic era. The region, known for its heavy clay soil, includes the Southwest Mountains around Charlottesville. The Blue Ridge Mountains are a physiographic province of the Appalachian Mountains with the highest points in the Commonwealth, the tallest being Mount Rogers at 5,729 feet (1,746 m). The Ridge-and-Valley region is west of the mountains, carbonate rock based, and includes the Massanutten Mountain ridge and the Great Appalachian Valley, which is called the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. The Cumberland Plateau and Cumberland Mountains are in the southwest corner of Virginia, south of the Allegheny Plateau. In this region, rivers flow northwest, with a dendritic drainage system, into the Ohio River basin.

Climate

Virginia has a humid subtropical climate that transitions to humid continental west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Seasonal extremes vary from average lows of 25 °F (−4 °C) in January to average highs of 86 °F (30 °C) in July. The Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Stream have a strong effect on eastern and southeastern coastal areas of the Commonwealth, making the climate there warmer and more constant. Most of Virginia’s recorded extremes in temperature and precipitation have occurred in the Blue Ridge Mountains and areas west. Virginia receives an average of 43.49 inches (110 cm) of precipitation annually, with the Shenandoah Valley being the state’s driest region due to the mountains on either side.

Virginia has around 35–45 days with thunderstorms annually, and storms are common in the late afternoon and evenings between April and September. These months are also the most common for tornadoes, fifteen of which touched down in the Commonwealth in 2020. Hurricanes and tropical storms can occur from August to October, and though they typically impact coastal regions, the deadliest natural disaster in Virginia was Hurricane Camille, which killed over 150 people mainly in inland Nelson County in 1969. Between December and March, cold-air damming caused by the Appalachian Mountains can lead to significant snowfalls across the state, such as the January 2016 blizzard, which created the state’s highest recorded snowfall of 36.6 inches (93 cm) near Bluemont. Virginia only received 13.1 inches (33 cm) of snow during winter 2018–19, just above the state’s average of 10 inches (25 cm).

Ecosystem

Forests cover 62% of Virginia as of 2019, of which 78% is considered hardwood forest, meaning that trees in Virginia are primarily deciduous and broad-leaved. The other 22% is pine, with Loblolly and shortleaf pine dominating much of central and eastern Virginia. In the western and mountainous parts of the Commonwealth, oak and hickory are most common, while lower altitudes are more likely to have small but dense stands of moisture-loving hemlocks and mosses in abundance. Gypsy moth infestations in oak trees and the blight in chestnut trees have decreased both of their numbers, leaving more room for hickory and invasive ailanthus trees. In the lowland tidewater and Piedmont, yellow pines tend to dominate, with bald cypress wetland forests in the Great Dismal and Nottoway swamps. Other common trees include red spruce, Atlantic White cedar, tulip-poplar, and the flowering dogwood, the state tree and flower, as well as willows, ashes, and laurels. Plants like milkweed, dandelions, daisies, ferns, and Virginia creeper, which is featured on the state flag, are also common. The Thompson Wildlife Area in Fauquier is known for one of the largest populations of trillium wildflowers in all of North America.

Cities and Towns

Virginia is divided into 95 counties and 38 independent cities, the latter acting in many ways as county-equivalents. This general method of treating cities and counties on par with each other is unique to Virginia; only three other independent cities exist elsewhere in the United States, each in a different state. The differences between counties and cities are small and have to do with how each assess new taxes, whether a referendum is necessary to issue bonds, and with the application of Dillon’s Rule, which limits the authority of cities and counties to countermand acts expressly allowed by the General Assembly. Within counties, there can also be incorporated towns, which operate their own governments, and unincorporated communities, which don’t. Virginia does not have any further political subdivisions, such as villages or townships.

Over 3.1 million people, 36% of Virginians, live in Northern Virginia, which is part of the larger Washington metropolitan area and the Northeast megalopolis. Fairfax County is the most populous locality in the state, with more than 1.1 million residents, although that does not include its county seat Fairfax City, which is one of the independent cities. Fairfax

Virginia is divided into 95 counties and 38 independent cities, the latter acting in many ways as county-equivalents. This general method of treating cities and counties on par with each other is unique to Virginia; only three other independent cities exist elsewhere in the United States, each in a different state. The differences between counties and cities are small and have to do with how each assess new taxes, whether a referendum is necessary to issue bonds, and with the application of Dillon’s Rule, which limits the authority of cities and counties to countermand acts expressly allowed by the General Assembly. Within counties, there can also be incorporated towns, which operate their own governments, and unincorporated communities, which don’t. Virginia does not have any further political subdivisions, such as villages or townships.

Over 3.1 million people, 36% of Virginians, live in Northern Virginia, which is part of the larger Washington metropolitan area and the Northeast megalopolis. Fairfax County is the most populous locality in the state, with more than 1.1 million residents, although that does not include its county seat Fairfax City, which is one of the independent cities. Fairfax

Demographics

The United States Census Bureau found the state resident population was 8,631,393 on April 1, 2020, a 7.9% increase since the 2010 United States Census. Another 23,149 Virginians live overseas, giving the state a total population of 8,654,542. Virginia has the fourth largest overseas population of U.S. states due to its federal employees and military personnel. The birth rate in Virginia was 11.4 per 1,000 over five years, and the median age was 38.4 years old, both identical to the national averages as of 2019. As of 2010, the center of population was located in Louisa County, near Richmond.

Immigration between 2010 and 2018 from outside the United States resulted in a net increase of 159,627 people, and migration within the country produced a net increase of 155,205 people. Aside from Virginia, the top birth state for Virginians is New York, having overtaken North Carolina in the 1990s, with the Northeast accounting for the largest number of domestic migrants into the state by region. About twelve percent of residents were born outside the United States as of 2020. El Salvador was the most common foreign country of birth, with India, South Korea, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and the Philippines as other common birthplaces.

Ethnicity

The state’s most populous ethnic group, Non-Hispanic whites, has declined as a proportion of population from 76% in 1990 to 60% in 2020, as other ethnicities have increased. Immigrants from the islands of Britain and Ireland settled throughout the Commonwealth during the colonial period, a time when roughly three-fourths of immigrants came as indentured servants. Those who identify on the census as having “American ethnicity” are predominantly of English descent, but have ancestors who have been in North America for so long they choose to identify simply as American. 

The western mountains have many settlements that were founded by Scotch-Irish immigrants before the American Revolution. There are also sizable numbers of people of German descent in the northwestern mountains and Shenandoah Valley, and 10.6% of Virginians are estimated to have German ancestry, as of 2019. New citizens attend a naturalization ceremony in Northern Virginia, where 25% of residents are foreign-born, almost twice the overall state average

Languages

As of 2010, 85.9% (6,299,127) of Virginia residents age five and older spoke English at home as a first language, while 14.1% (1,036,442) did not—6.4% (470,058) spoke Spanish, 0.8% (56,518) Korean, 0.6% (45,881) Vietnamese, 0.6% (42,418) Chinese (including Mandarin), and 0.6% (40,724) Tagalog. English was passed as the Commonwealth’s official language by statutes in 1981 and again in 1996, though the status is not mandated by the Constitution of Virginia.

The Piedmont region is known for its dialect’s strong influence on Southern American English. While a more homogenized American English is found in urban areas, various accents are also used, including the Tidewater accent, the Old Virginia accent, and the anachronistic Elizabethan of Tangier Island.

Religion

Virginia is predominantly Christian and Protestant; Baptist denominations combined to form largest group with over a quarter of the population as of 2014. Baptist denominational groups in Virginia include the Baptist General Association of Virginia, with about 1,400 member churches, which supports both the Southern Baptist Convention and the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship; and the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia with more than 500 affiliated churches, which supports the Southern Baptist Convention. Roman Catholics are the next largest religious group with around twelve percent. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington includes most of Northern Virginia’s Catholic churches, while the Diocese of Richmond covers the rest.

The United Methodist Church, representing about six percent of Virginians, has the Virginia Conference as their regional body in most of the Commonwealth, while the Holston Conference represents much of extreme Southwest Virginia. Around five percent of Virginians attend Pentecostal churches, while around three percent attend Presbyterian churches, which are split between the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Presbyterian Church in America. The Lutheran Church, under the Virginia Synod, Congregational churches, and Episcopalian adherents each comprised less than two percent of the population as of 2014. The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, Southern Virginia, and Southwestern Virginia support the various Episcopal churches.

Economy

Virginia’s economy has diverse sources of income, including local and federal government, military, farming and high-tech. The state’s average earnings per job was $63,281, the 11th-highest nationwide, and the gross domestic product (GDP) was $476.4 billion in 2018, the 13th-largest among U.S. states. Prior to the COVID-19 recession, in March 2020, Virginia had 4.36 million people employed with an unemployment rate of 2.9%, but jobless claims due to the virus soared over 10% in early April 2020, before leaving off around 5% in November 2020. In February 2022, it was 3.2%, which was the 16th-lowest nationwide. Virginia however ranked worst in the nation for timely review of unemployment benefits due to the pandemic.

Virginia has a median household income of $72,600, 11th-highest nationwide, and a poverty rate of 10.7%, 12th-lowest nationwide, as of 2018. Montgomery County outside Blacksburg has the highest poverty rate in the state, with 28.5% falling below the U.S. Census poverty thresholds. Loudoun County meanwhile has the highest median household income in the nation, and the wider Northern Virginia region is among the highest-income regions nationwide. As of 2013, six of the twenty highest-income counties in the United States, including the two highest, as well as three of the fifty highest-income towns, are all located in Northern Virginia. Though the Gini index shows Virginia has less income inequality than the national average, the state’s middle class is also smaller than the majority of states.

Business

Virginia was home to 653,193 separate firms in the 2012 U.S. Census Survey of Business Owners, with 54% of those majority male-owned and 36.2% majority female-owned. Approximately 28.3% of firms were also majority minority-owned, and 11.7% were veteran-owned. Twenty-one Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in Virginia as of 2019, with the largest companies by revenue being Freddie Mac, General Dynamics, and Capital One. The largest by their number of employees are Dollar Tree in Chesapeake and Hilton Worldwide Holdings in McLean.

Virginia has the third highest concentration of technology workers and the fifth highest overall number among U.S. states as of 2020, with the 451,268 tech jobs accounting for 11.1% of all jobs in the state and earning a median salary of $98,292. Many of these jobs are in Northern Virginia, which hosts a large number of software, communications, and cybersecurity companies, particularly in the Dulles Technology Corridor and Tysons Corner areas. Amazon additionally selected Crystal City for its HQ2 in 2018, while Google expanded their Reston offices in 2019. Virginia became the world's largest data center market in 2016, with Loudoun County specifically branding itself "Data Center Alley" due to the roughly 13.5 million square feet (1.25 km2) in use for data. In 2020, the state had the second highest average internet download speeds in the United States, with 193.1 Mbit/s. Computer chips first became the state's highest-grossing export in 2006, and had a total export value of $827 million in 2020. Though in the top quartile for diversity based on the Simpson index, only 26% of tech employees in Virginia are women, and only 13% are Black or African American.

Agriculture

As of 2017, agriculture occupied 28% of the land in Virginia with 7.8 million acres (12,188 sq mi; 31,565 km2) of farmland. Nearly 54,000 Virginians work on the state's 43,225 farms, which average 181 acres (0.28 sq mi; 0.73 km2). Though agriculture has declined significantly since 1960 when there were twice as many farms, it remains the largest single industry in Virginia, providing for over 334,000 jobs. Soybeans were the most profitable crop in Virginia in 2017, ahead of corn and cut flowers as other leading agricultural products. However, the ongoing China-U.S. trade war led many Virginia farmers to plant cotton instead of soybeans in 2019. Though it is no longer the primary crop, Virginia is still the third-largest producer of tobacco in the United States.

Virginia is also the country's third-largest producer of seafood as of 2018, with sea scallops, oysters, Chesapeake blue crabs, menhaden, and hardshell clams as the largest seafood harvests by value, and France, Canada, and Hong Kong as the top export destinations. Commercial fishing supports 18,220 jobs as of 2020, while recreation fishing supports another 5,893. Eastern oyster harvests had increased from 23,000 bushels in 2001 to over 500,000 in 2013, but fell to 248,347 in 2019 because of low salinity in coastal waters due to heavy spring rains. Those same rains however made 2019 a record wine harvest for vineyards in the Northern Neck and along the Blue Ridge Mountains, which also attract 2.3 million tourists annually. Virginia has the seventh-highest number of wineries in the nation, with 307 as of 2020. Cabernet franc and Chardonnay are the most grown varieties.

Culture

Modern Virginian culture has many sources, and is part of the culture of the Southern United States. The Smithsonian Institution divides Virginia into nine cultural regions, and in 2007 used their annual Folklife Festival to recognize the substantial contributions of England and Senegal on Virginian culture. Virginia’s culture was popularized and spread across America and the South by figures such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Robert E. Lee. Their homes in Virginia represent the birthplace of America and the South.

Besides the general cuisine of the Southern United States, Virginia maintains its own particular traditions. Virginia wine is made in many parts of the Commonwealth. Smithfield ham, sometimes called “Virginia ham”, is a type of country ham which is protected by state law, and can be produced only in the town of Smithfield. Virginia furniture and architecture are typical of American colonial architecture. Thomas Jefferson and many of the Commonwealth’s early leaders favored the Neoclassical architecture style, leading to its use for important state buildings. The Pennsylvania Dutch and their style can also be found in parts of the Commonwealth.

Fine and Performing Arts

Virginia ranks near the middle of U.S. states in terms of public spending on the arts as of 2021, at just over half of the national average. The state government does fund some institutions, including the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Science Museum of Virginia. Other museums include the popular Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum and the Chrysler Museum of Art. Besides these sites, many open-air museums are located in the Commonwealth, such as Colonial Williamsburg, the Frontier Culture Museum, and various historic battlefields. The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities works to improve the Commonwealth's civic, cultural, and intellectual life.

Theaters and venues in the Commonwealth are found both in the cities and in suburbs. The Harrison Opera House, in Norfolk, is home of the Virginia Opera. The Virginia Symphony Orchestra operates in and around Hampton Roads. Resident and touring theater troupes operate from the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton. The Barter Theatre in Abingdon, designated the State Theatre of Virginia, won the first Regional Theatre Tony Award in 1948, while the Signature Theatre in Arlington won it in 2009. There is also a Children's Theater of Virginia, Theatre IV, which is the second largest touring troupe nationwide. Notable music performance venues include The Birchmere, the Landmark Theater, and Jiffy Lube Live. Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts is located in Vienna and is the only national park intended for use as a performing arts center.

Festivals

Many counties and localities host county fairs and festivals. The Virginia State Fair is held at the Meadow Event Park every September. Also in September is the Neptune Festival in Virginia Beach, which celebrates the city, the waterfront, and regional artists. Norfolk's Harborfest, in June, features boat racing and air shows. Fairfax County also sponsors Celebrate Fairfax! with popular and traditional music performances. The Virginia Lake Festival is held during the third weekend in July in Clarksville. On the Eastern Shore island of Chincoteague the annual Pony Penning of feral Chincoteague ponies at the end of July is a unique local tradition expanded into a week-long carnival.

The Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival is a six-day festival held annually in Winchester which includes parades and bluegrass concerts. The Old Time Fiddlers' Convention in Galax, begun in 1935, is one of the oldest and largest such events worldwide, and Wolf Trap hosts the Wolf Trap Opera Company, which produces an opera festival every summer. The Blue Ridge Rock Festival has operated since 2017, and has brought as many as 33,000 concert-goers to the Blue Ridge Amphitheater in Pittsylvania County. Two important film festivals, the Virginia Film Festival and the VCU French Film Festival, are held annually in Charlottesville and Richmond, respectively.

Education

Virginia’s public schools serve over a million students at over 2,200 schools.

Virginia’s educational system consistently ranks in the top five states on the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, with Virginia students outperforming the average in all subject areas and grade levels tested. The 2020 Quality Counts report ranked Virginia’s K–12 education eighth in the country, with a letter grade of B. All school divisions must adhere to educational standards set forth by the Virginia Department of Education, which maintains an assessment and accreditation regime known as the Standards of Learning to ensure accountability.

Public K–12 schools in Virginia are generally operated by the counties and cities, and not by the state. As of the 2018–19 academic year, a total of 1,290,576 students were enrolled in 2,293 local and regional schools in the Commonwealth, including eight charter schools, and an additional 98 alternative and special education centers across 133 school divisions. 2018 marked the first decline in overall enrollment in public schools, by just over 2,000 students, since 1984. Besides the general public schools in Virginia, there are Governor’s Schools and selective magnet schools. The Governor’s Schools are a collection of more than forty regional high schools and summer programs intended for gifted students. The Virginia Council for Private Education oversees the regulation of 483 state accredited private schools. An additional 17,283 students receive homeschooling.

Transportation

Because of the 1932 Byrd Road Act, the state government controls most of Virginia’s roads, instead of a local county authority as is usual in other states. As of 2018, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) owns and operates 57,867 miles (93,128 km) of the total 70,105 miles (112,823 km) of roads in the state, making it the third largest state highway system in the United States. Traffic on Virginia’s roads is among the worst in the nation according to the 2019 American Community Survey. The average commute time of 28.7 minutes is the eighth longest among U.S. states, and the Washington Metropolitan Area, which includes Northern Virginia, has the second worst rate of traffic congestion among U.S. cities. About 9.2% of workers in Virginia reported carpooling to work in 2019, and Virginia hit peak car usage before the year 2000, making it one of the first such states.

About 4.4% of Virginians commute on public transit, and there were over 171.9 million public transit trips in Virginia in 2019, over 62% of which were done on the Washington Metro transit system, which serves Arlington and Alexandria, and extends into Loudoun and Fairfax Counties. Virginia has Amtrak passenger rail service along several corridors, and Virginia Railway Express (VRE) maintains two commuter lines into Washington, D.C. from Fredericksburg and Manassas. VRE averaged over 90,000 weekly riders in 2019, but saw a dramatic 90% decline in ridership due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. 

Major freight railroads in Virginia include Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation, and in 2021 the state finalized a deal to purchase 223 miles (359 km) of track and over 350 miles (560 km) of right of way from CSX for future passenger rail service. Commuter buses include the Fairfax Connector, FRED buses in Fredericksburg, and OmniRide in Prince William County. VDOT operates several free ferries throughout Virginia, the most notable being the Jamestown Ferry which connects Jamestown to Scotland Wharf across the James River.

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