Hottest Topic: How Cold?
Mid-30s Is Forecasters' Guess, But With 7 Days To Go, They're Not Swearing on a Bible to It

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 13, 2009

It drenched Franklin D. Roosevelt, drove Ronald Reagan indoors and might have hastened William Henry Harrison to his grave.

It frosted Grover Cleveland's mustache and reportedly froze Ulysses S. Grant's dinner turkeys waiting in an unheated building.

It is Inauguration Day weather, and for the next seven days it will be much on the minds of inaugural planners, participants and spectators.

So far, the forecast looks okay: Most agencies are calling for sunny weather, or partly so, with highs in the 30s.

But there is a weather system way out in the northern Pacific Ocean, according to AccuWeather, which might or might not come this way Monday and might or might not bring snow. "A lot of things could happen between now and then," senior meteorologist Tom Kines said.

Indeed, a week is a long way out, weather-wise, and the National Weather Service is only this afternoon issuing its first official forecast briefing to inauguration officials.

James E. Lee, meteorologist in charge of the Weather Service's Baltimore/Washington forecast office in Sterling, said there will be a teleconference at 3 p.m. for the Red Cross, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other government and inauguration officials.

Until today, the inauguration forecast has been handled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climate Prediction Center, which does more general longer-term forecasting.

Jon Gottschalck, head of the climate prediction center's forecast operations, said its final inauguration forecast yesterday called for below-average temperatures, probably in the mid-30s, and little threat of precipitation.

He said the center utilizes weather history and numerical weather models to make its forecasts, although the models, which use global weather data and equations, are less reliable more than seven days out.

"When you get within seven days, those model forecasts historically get much better," he said.

As for the snow, Gottschalck said some models suggest it, and others don't. "Right now, there doesn't look like there'll be any large storms for Inauguration Day," he said.

Another factor that might be in play is the extremely cold weather that is due here Thursday, Friday and Saturday, forecasters said, but it is something that they expect to be gone by early next week.

By then, Lee's office will be in charge.

"Within the seven-day window . . . it's our forecast," he said.

For starters, predictions for the week ahead will be generated every six hours, Lee said. Starting Friday, they will be produced every three hours, and by Monday they will be produced hourly.

Much local weather comes to Washington from the west or northwest, Lee said, but just off the Atlantic coast, from Cape Hatteras to New England, is "a breeding ground" for generation of low-pressure systems that spawn snowstorms. "That's where we get our big snow dumps from," he said.

"Sometimes they develop in the Gulf of Mexico, and they'll cut across the southeast United States," he said. "But then once they reach the Atlantic, they get more moisture . . . and energy in terms of the Gulf Stream, that warm current that's off the coast, and that causes them to kind of explosively develop."

But not to panic: The average high temperature for Jan. 20, at Reagan National Airport, is 42, and the average low is 27.

There is also the mysterious phenomenon known in weather lore as the "January thaw," Lee said.

"If you go back and look at the climate record, there are a number of days in January in Washington, D.C., that the temperature gets to be 60 degrees or higher," Lee said.

Last January, there were three days that were at least 60 degrees, he said. On Jan. 8, 2008, the mercury hit 73. January 2007 had six days in the 60s or 70s, and January 2006 had eight.

Weather has bedeviled inaugurations for decades.

President William Henry Harrison's death on April 4, 1841, a month after he delivered the longest inaugural speech in history -- well over an hour -- is said to have stemmed from exposure to the raw, windy weather.

It snowed on the inaugurations of Franklin Pierce, in March of 1853, William Howard Taft in March of 1909 and the day before John F. Kennedy's, in January of 1961, according to the Weather Service.

Inauguration Day was moved from March 4 to Jan. 20 in 1937, but Franklin Roosevelt's inauguration that year was drenched in rain.

Bitter cold -- seven degrees at noon -- drove Reagan's second inauguration inside the Capitol in 1985. In 1873, it is said to have frozen the turkeys that were to be served at Grant's second inaugural and killed the canaries that were brought in as decoration.

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