When pressed, National Weather Service forecasters refused yesterday to give an unequivocal answer to everyone's favorite question: Is the awful cold over for good?
"Not necessarily," said forecaster Jeffrey Bowman.
Instead, on the first day in recent memory that was so warm that people were seen walking around downtown without heavy coats, the weather service announced that the Washington area had set a record for the consecutive number of days that the lowest temperature had been at or below freezing.
It started on Dec. 27, 1976, and ran for 47 days, including yesterday, when the low was 30 degrees in the early morning hours. In 1918, the same thing happened, but it lasted a mere 44 days.
This weekend, blessed relief, it is possible that the temperature will never fall to freezing or below, the weather service said.
It is expected to be cloudy and warmer today with occasional light rain or showers tonight and Sunday, the weather service said. The longer-range forecaste calls for fair weather and "relatively mild" above-freezing temperatures through Wednesday, with more rain possible in the middle of the week.
As the temperature climbed to 64 degrees yesterday, the ice on the Potomac River and across the region softened somewhat and more of those treachous slick spots on sidewalks and driveways melted away.
That melting, combined with a minor air stagnation problem yesterday morning, brought with it high humidity and air that looked something like it does on those rotten days in summer.
"If this had been an August day, we would have had very bad air," said Dennis Bates, who watches such things for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG). As it was, photochemical oxidants (smog) were recorded at 26. The familiar summer alert level is 100.
It is too early to say if the harsh cold of this winter has left the Washington area. The upper air currents that have brought one icy blast after another to the Northeastern United States have shifted slightly to bring warmer air, weather service experts said, but could return to the familiar frigid pattern.
"Remember," said weather service forecaster Bowman, "we will have a probability of snow into late February and early March around here."
Weather service and river experts are not expecting major flood problems in the Washington area from melting ice on rivers and streams.
"It takes three things for major flooding," said Frank Forrester of the U.S. Geological Survey. "It takes ice on the river, heavy snow fields in the river basin and heavy rains. All we have is ice on the river."
The Potomac itself is flowing at its slowest rate for this time of the year since 1969 - the last year, incidentally, in which there was a minor summer water shortage. Normal river flow at Great Falls is 9 billion gallons a day yesterday the river was recorded by the geogolical survey at 2.6 billion gallons a day.
"Of course, one heavy rain and we can turn that around," said Forrester.
The ice was still 8 inches deep in the Washington Channel yesterday, but softening, D.C. harbor police reported.
In the Chesapeake Bay, the major shipping channels were open into the Baltimore harbor, but closed to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, the Coast Guard said.
The ice on the bay has not begun to break up, but when it does, it poses a treat to boats that have been kept on the water through the winter.
What happens, the Coast Guard explained, is that ice break off the fittings around underwater or waterline openings in the hull. When that occurs, water pours into the compartment and the boat sinks to the bottom like a rock.
The thawing is also bringing into full view one of region's largest collections of potholes in several winters. Stanley Ather, whose crews repair potholes in District streets, said he has had 18 trucks a day out spreading between 40 and 50 tons of hot asphalt. "We're beginning to catch up," he said. Virginia and Maryland officials are having similar problems.