Great Falls ice at polar vortex sunrise (PHOTOS and VIDEO)


The Potomac River at Great Falls appears to steam in single digit temperatures on January 8, 2014.  This was a 10 second timed exposure which gave the fast-flowing water and rising river mist a soft and blurry appearance.  The photo was taken about 15 minutes before sunrise. (Kevin Ambrose)

Question:  How much ice formed on the Potomac River at Great Falls during the frigid “Polar Vortex” event of 2014?

Answer:  Not much ice formed, the water moves too fast at Great Falls.

The ice that did form at Great Falls coated the surface of the rocks that were exposed to river spray.  It was the combination of ice-coated rocks and the rising river mist (the river often appears to steam during very cold weather) that lured me to Great Falls to photograph an Arctic air mass sunrise.


A wide view of Great Falls photographed a few minutes before sunrise, January 8, 2014.  The temperature was 9 degrees.  (Kevin Ambrose)

Question:  How many photographers ventured out into single digit temperatures to photograph an Arctic air sunrise at Great Falls on the morning of January 8?

Answer:  Just me and a friend, no-one else was that crazy.

The temperature on the car thermometer read 9 degrees and nearby Dulles Airport recorded a low temperature of 5 degrees. On that morning, the wind subsided so the photo shoot was not brutally cold.  It would have been a much different story a day earlier, on January 7, with slightly colder temperatures and a strong wind blowing down the river.


A beautiful sunrise produces shades of red and yellow across the eastern sky over Mather Gorge, January 8, 2014.  This view faces the opposite direction from Great Falls on the first observatory platform on the Virginia side of the river.  (Kevin Ambrose)

In all my years of photographing Great Falls, I have never seen a lot of ice accumulation.  As I mentioned earlier, the water moves much to fast to freeze solid.

One of the best ice accumulations that I have observed at Great Falls occurred ten years ago, in January 2004.  The Washington area experienced a 10 day cold spell during the end of January which produced some very nice scenes at Great Falls.  Here’s a link to the photos from 2004.


A close-up view of ice-coated rocks at Great Falls, January 8, 2014. (Kevin Ambrose)

To contrast these icy scenes with a recent flood at Great Falls, here’s a link to my CWG post after Hurricane Sandy.  I love photographing Great Falls because the river takes on many different appearances depending upon the weather and the season.

Very soon, the ice at Great Falls will melt and the river will revert back to a more typical winter setting found here in the Middle Atlantic — no snow or ice.   The conditions will stay that way until next major winter weather event transforms the river once again.


Great Falls is bathed in sunlight about 30 minutes after sunrise, January 8, 2014. (Kevin Ambrose)

A video of Great Falls shot on the morning of January 8, 2014.


One more scene of dawn at Great Falls on the morning of January 8, 2014. This was a timed exposure. (Kevin Ambrose)
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David Streit · January 9, 2014

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