ASTRONOMICALLY, winter will not arrive until 6:24 p.m. E.S.T., December 21, when the sun will reach its southernmost point in the sky. Meteorologically, however, the winter season includes all of December, January and February.
If you're a newcomer to the Washington area, or if you have a short weather memory, it might be useful to skim some of the weather statistics as the cold season approaches. You'll find some chilly reminders that this area is by no means immune to winter's sting and fury. The winter season of 1976-77, which ranked as one of the coldest on record, is the most recent reminder of the punishing products of winter storms - snow, ice, wind, and chill.
The heat and humidity here (remember this past summer?) are well publicized; less heralded are the snows and low mercury readings. Following are some of the cold facts taken from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration records: Snow
During a normal year the Washington area gets between 15 and [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of snow.
Pre-winter snow a [WORD ILLEGIBLE] however, don't be surprised if you see snow in October. A trace of snow is time logged in October; the most snow in October was 2.2 inches in 1925. November's total snow averages about 0.7 inches; in 1953, however, 6.7 inches fell.
In December, the snowfall tempo picks up, with close to 4 inches falling during a normal December. In 1962, December's total was 16.2 inches. In January the average snowfall is 4.5 inches, with the record January snowfall a smothering 31.6 inches that fell in 1922. February brings about 4.6 inches, normally, with the February record standing at 35.2 inches, measured during the bitter cold winter of 1899.
March usually yields about 2.7 inches. The record March snowfall was in 1914, when 19.2 inches were measured. During April, there are still possibilities of a brief flurry or two, providing not more than a trace, but in 1924, a surprising late winter storm brought 5 inches.
Winter precipitation in Washington is rather uniform, with 12 per cent of the months having had more than 5 inches (this inlcudes rain and melted water equivalent of snow and sleet).
More than 15 per cent of all hours during the winter have had precipitation sometime during the hour. A third of all Decembers have had less than one inch of snowfall; January and February have more snow than December. One-fifth of the recorded Januarys and Februarys have had less than one inch.
There are five days during December, January and February when one or more inches of snow will fall. The snow accumulations of the normally "bad" winter sotrms in Washington total about 6 to 10 inches. Thanks to temperatures and sunshine, usually the 10 inches melt off rapidly enough so as not to be a source of serious inconvenience for more than two to four days, though while the fall is fresh (and often wet), driving is hazardous, traffic snarls frequent, walking uncomfortable to impossible, school closings common, and community disorganization more or less general.
One of the most outstanding winter occurrences in Washington was the infamous "Knickerbocker Storm" during January 27-29, 1922, which produced a total of 28 to 30 inches of snow. Under the snow's crushing weight, the roof of the Knickerbocker Theatre collapsed during an evening performance on the 29th, killing about 100 persons, and injuring perhaps another 100. Temperature
During December, the daily high temperature averages about 45.5oF; the daily low, about 30.5of. Record December high is 75o in 1946; record December low is 3o in 1917. During a normal December, there are five days when the maximum temperature is no higher than 32o, and there are twenty-four days when the minimum temperature is below 32o.
During January, the daily high averages 44.3o; the daily low about 29.5o. Record January high is 79o in 1950, and the record low for the month is -14o in 1881. During a normal January, there are seven days when the maximum temperature is no higher than 32o, and twenty-six days when the minimum drops to 32o or lower.
During February, the daily high averages about 46o; the daily low, 29.4o. A record February high of 84o was set in 1930, and in February of 1899, a temperature of -15o was recorded, all-time record low for Washington.
On the night of February 4, 1899, temperatures in Washington fell well below freezing and remained that way until the hit by five separate snowstorms during the big freeze, totaling more than 34 inches. During four days of the period, below-zero readings were recorded, and on the morning of the 11th, the mercury dropped to the record low of -15o.
In February 1895, there were twelve consecutive days when the mercury went no higher than 32o.
Winter precipitation in Washington is produced almost exclusively from well-developed storms (low-pressure areas) that move through or near the Middle Atlantic states from the west or southwest. Quite commonly during these storm periods, western mountain counties of the Virginias and Maryland may pick up between 5 and 20 inches of snow, while the Washington-Baltimore areas may get only 2 to 4 inches. At the same time, just southeast and south of Washington, rain or a mixture of rain and snow may be observed. This borderline or "marginal" situation is common; a difference of a few degrees at the surface or aloft often makes the difference between a major snowstorm or a harmless rain. It is a matter of vexation for both the forecaster and the public.
Scientists who have studied fossil pollen remains say that about 14,000 years ago Washington and its environs were covered with a dense evergreen forest, with temperatures about 20o cooler, on the average, than they are now. The area then might have been similar to the present forests and climate of Labrador and northern New England, reflecting the effects of the Ice Age. Some scientists foresee more "wintry" winters in the future, but it is doubtful that the urban center of Washington will cool again to its nineteenth-century levels, mainly because of the intensity of the urban "heat island" resulting from increased construction and development.
Winter storms bring special threats to life and property. During a thirty-four-year period ending in 1970, according to the National Weather Service, over 3300 deaths attributable to the effects of winter storms were reported in the United States. About one-third resulted from traffic or other accidents; one-fourth from overexertion, exhaustion, or fatal heart attacks (many from shoveling snow). Other major causes of deaths were exposure, freezing, house fires, carbon monoxide poisoning in stalled cars, falls on slippery surfaces, electrocution from downed wires, and collapse of snow-laden buildings.
The job of detecting disturbances which may become winter storms, and issuing warnings against the storm's approach, is given to meteorologists of the National Weather Service, a component of the Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Each autumn, to cut down on tragedies that result from the sting of winter, the Weather Service mobilizes special teams to detect winter storms early and to get warnings out fast. A special watch is begun by the Weather Service in cooperation with other agencies along the populous East Coast. Ships, planes, satellites, and "talking" buoys provide forecasters with advance data on storms moving in from the Atlantic. In lesser populated plains and mountains of the West, a network of volunteer spotters, recruited by the Weather Service, reports on budding blizzards.
The Weather Service says there is much that one can do to prepare for severe winter weather. Among the winter storm safety tips issued by the agency: In the Home
Self sufficiency is the theme - getting ready to live without normal [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and services. Assume there [WORD ILLEGIBLE] be no electricity, no central heating, no deliveries, no way to get groceries, no way to get out for a day or two. Plan accordingly.
Check battery-powered equipment, such as flashlights, and radios; make sure batteries are fresh. Stock extra food, including some that requires no cooking. Look for potential fire hazards from prolonged use of stoves, fireplaces, or space heaters.
If you're not in good physical condition, keep in mind that heart failure from shoveling snow is a major cause of death in winter storms. Remember that mittens are warmer than fingered gloves; that several layers of loose-fitting clothing provide better protection against cold that tight-fitting garments; that outer wear should be tightly woven, water-repellent, and hooded. On the Farm
Extra feed should be hauled into shelter areas before the storm arrives. Range cattle are hardy and can survive extreme cold provided they can move around easily and feed at frequent intervals. If a storm lasts more than 48 hours, begin emergency feeding.
Be ready to provide extra water. Autopsies have shown that many winter-killed cattle die from dehydration rather than cold or suffocation. They cannot lick enough snow to satisfy thirst. Use heated tanks to provide livestock with water after prolonged exposure to snow and cold. On the Road
Winterize the family car in advance. Have ignition, fuel, antifreeze, and exhaust systems checked. Make sure the heat is working, that brakes are tight and adjusted, tires in good condition, windshield wiper and lights working properly.
In rural areas or where extended travel is planned, be ready for the worst. Have a car kit ready. Among items to consider the tire chains, tow chains, snow shovel, sack of sand, flashlight or signal light, flares, extra gasoline, fire extinguisher, booster cables, ax, windshield scraper, external heater, first-aid kit, knife, compass, road maps, blankets or sleeping bags, paper towels, matches, candles, extra clothing, pliers, screwdriver, and adjustable wrench.
Many drivers carry a spare set of wheels equipped with chains - it's often easier to change wheels than it is to install chains when a car is stuck.
Before setting out, check the latest weather information. On the road, keep frequent radio checks for storm bulletins. Maintain as much gasoline in your tank as you can, stopping frequently to refill.In remote areas, traveling in convoy with another vehicle is a good idea.
If a blizzard traps you on the road, try to stay in the car. This is where rescuers are likely to find you soonest. If you're in deep, don't try to push two tons of car out of a drift or risk heart attack by frantic shoveling. Don't try to walk out through a blizzard - getting lost can be almost certain death.
Don't panic. There are specially trained crews who are mobilized and ready to deal with a variety of problems that result from the severest of storms.
While waiting for help, maintain some ventilation by opening the window just a bit. Run the motor and heater sparingly; carbon monoxide is a stealthy killer. Try not to remain motionless for long periods of time. Exercise by clapping hands and moving arms and legs vigorously. At night, turn the dome light on so that work crews can spot you easily. Keep a continuous watch; never allow all occupants of the car to sleep at once.