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By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The curse of Washington's winter weather descended on the region yesterday as the temperature bounced around the magic mark that turns rain to ice, the dreaded slippery stuff that can paralyze virtually everything.

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Sometimes the threat of ice is enough to cause traffic to creep and some schools to close early, and the region saw both yesterday. But mostly it was just another dreary day in a week that promises to have more. By 8 p.m., the temperature near Washington was 32 degrees in some places, a degree higher in others, and the air filled with fog, mist, drizzle and light rain.

Schools closed early in Frederick County, a few stoplights malfunctioned in Montgomery County and the evening rush period was crippled by fear, but very little real glaze was on the pavement.

"We dodged a small bullet," said National Weather Service spokeswoman Jackie Hale.

The escape will be complete if this morning's temperatures follow the forecast and climb steadily toward the 40-degree mark. The rain, however, is expected to continue through the day.

The "small bullet" could have become a weather bomb if the wind had picked up.

"If the winds were just a few miles per hour stronger, the temperature would have dropped," said Greg Schoor, a National Weather Service meteorologist, "and we could have had a major ice storm."

That is the story of Washington in January.

The capital region is notorious for sultry summers that chase Congress into recess and sweating tourists into air conditioning, but some think the winter weather deserves greater disdain.

Farther north, the worst winter weather can be plowed away. Farther south, all it requires is a stout umbrella. Washington's curse is to lie between them, where neither snow nor rain is uncommon but where sleet and freezing rain are more likely and potentially more crippling.

The misery margin is a matter of degrees. The average temperature for January is three degrees above freezing. At 34.9 degrees, most of the 3.2 inches of average monthly precipitation comes as rain.

At the average high, 42 degrees, it probably rains. At the average low, 27 degrees, it probably snows. Between the two, it's anybody's guess. But what's come to be known as a "wintery mix" is a safe bet.


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