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Snowstorm expected to hit region on busy travel day

By Annys Shin and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 26, 2010; 12:46 AM

A snowstorm was expected to hit the Washington area and other parts of the East Coast on Sunday morning and continue for much of the day, just as many holiday travelers head home.

The areas of greatest impact were expected to be north and east of the District.

For a time on Saturday forecasts had predicted as much as four to six inches in the District and close-in Virginia. But late Saturday and early Sunday, forecasters reported indications that the snowfall might be smaller.

Two private forecasting services predicted that the amounts in the District might be about one to three inches, in one case, and two to four inches in the other.

This would still be substantially more than the light snow that began in the District Christmas morning and fell into early afternoon.

But late Saturday after the predictions of as much as six inches in the District, the Baltimore/Washington forecast office of the National Weather Service reported the view that this might be too large.

In a posted discussion of their thinking, weather service forecasters described an increasing sense that the Sunday accumulations would be "less than currently" forecasted.

The forecasters upgraded a winter storm watch to a winter storm warning late Saturday after monitoring the paths of two weather systems - one from the north, another from the south - that they expected to merge.

Depending on where the two systems come together, the resulting storm has the potential to bring the first serious snow accumulation of the season to the Washington region, or just a glancing blow, said Wes Junker of The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang.

"Very minor changes in the conditions can give you a storm that tracks right up the coast or one that develops further out," he said.

Junker said the combination of the two systems, including one that dumped more than nine inches of snow on Iowa on Friday, had the potential to develop into a blizzard, especially in the Northeast.

The Sunday after Christmas was expected to be a busy travel day. Airport officials said travelers should check early with their airlines.

As of Saturday afternoon, officials with the Washington region's airports said the light snow that had been falling off and on had not caused much disruption. But snow crews were standing by.

"We're just watching the forecast," said Courtney Mickalonis, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversees Dulles International and Reagan National airports. "We won't know until the snow starts what we're dealing with."

Jonathan O. Dean, a spokesman for the Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, said that there might have been a few delays for BWI-related flights because of snowy weather elsewhere but that operations were normal.

The Associated Press quoted Delta Air Lines spokesman Morgan Durrant as saying that the airline had 500 weather-related flight cancellations Saturday nationwide, including 300 of the 800 scheduled departures from the Atlanta hub.

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) declared a state of emergency Saturday as a precaution. The declaration allowed state agencies to begin teaming up with local governments to prepare for the storm. A statement from McDonnell's office said that although "there is still uncertainty with the storm's track," the outlook included the possibility of 12 inches of snow and high winds for eastern Virginia, including the Eastern Shore, and snowfall of two to seven inches along the Interstate 95 corridor and two to five inches along Interstate 81.

The intermittent flurries Saturday morning provoked questions about what qualifies as a "white Christmas."

The flurries were duly noted in weather records. They prompted a "T" for "trace" to be entered in the snowfall column for Saturday. But for many, the experience fell short of the scene that inspired songwriter Irving Berlin and crooner Bing Crosby.

"I don't know whether it counts as a white Christmas," Junker said. "It wasn't at my house. The ground wasn't white."

A postcard-perfect white Christmas is a rarity around the D.C. area. The last Christmas Day snowfall in Washington, in 2002, started out in the morning as rain. Total accumulation that day: two-tenths of an inch.

A measurable amount of snow has fallen on Christmas Day only nine times since 1888. The biggest Christmas Day snowfall was 5.4 inches in 1962.

Saturday afternoon, as remnants of the flurries blew by, a few residents were still holding out hope for a meteorological miracle.

"The skies look like they're trying to make snow, don't they, guys?" said Seyoung Kappel of Alexandria, who was ice skating in Pentagon City with her daughter Catherine, 7, and her son Christian, 5, while husband Jeff manned a video camera.

"I think it would be really nice if it snowed," said Seema Gajwani of Capitol Hill, who said her two children, ages 2 and 4, were so eager for a repeat of last winter's "Snowmageddon" that a few weeks ago, when the region got a light dusting, they went in the back yard and scraped together what snow they could so they could jump in it.

On the other end of the rink, a little girl in a purple coat locked her eyes on a snowflake as it drifted toward her, then stuck her tongue out to try to catch it.

A few inches of white no longer impresses Amos Gelb, 46, a self-described "recovering journalist" who teaches at George Washington University and has a preference for newsworthy weather events.

"Five inches? What pathetic weather," he said. "Bring back Snowpocalypse."

Staff writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.

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