The Washington Post

Fire and ice: A spectacular D.C. sunrise and the frozen Potomac River (PHOTOS)

The sky appears to be on fire as the ice-covered Tidal Basin reflects the bright and vivid color of sunrise, January 25, 2014.  The Jefferson Memorial is in the background.  Select the photo to see a larger view of the cloud structure and color.  It was a unique and “crazy” weather scene not often viewed in Washington.  Note, there was no color manipulation of the photo.  (Kevin Ambrose)

Did you see the sunrise Saturday morning?  It was one of those rare, surreal sunrises in which the sky appears to be on fire.  The fiery colors reflected brilliantly off of the frozen Tidal Basin.  It was a rather unique weather scene.

It’s also not every winter that large expanses of ice cover area waterholes like the Potomac while we have snow on the ground. A relatively mild Saturday afternoon provided a few-hour respite from four days below freezing, and a great opportunity to take in a mid-winter dusk.

An icy Potomac river at dusk with D.C. in the background, January 25. (Ian Livingston)

A wide view of the crazy sky over the Tidal Basin and Jefferson Memorial on January 25, 2014. (Kevin Ambrose)

To cover our unique weekend of Washington’s “fire and ice,” we divided our photographic efforts to shoot a sunrise at the Tidal Basin and to photograph the icy Potomac River at dusk.

In addition, we have included details on how to forecast the “perfect sunrise” as well as a brief look at why we’re getting an ice-covered Potomac.

Chasing the perfect sunrise

Approaching clipper storms often produce the most colorful sunrises because they are typically dry storm systems that occur in clear, clean winter air.  In addition, there is usually no fog, dense overcast, and overrunning precipitation in advance of clippers.

Thus, the rising sun’s light is unobstructed and can shine strongly underneath the cloud structure of the approaching storm. Timing is everything, however.  The storms need to approach at sunrise.  Here’s a Capital Weather Gang article describing how to predict a good sunrise using satellite imagery.

Weather ingredients that help predict a good sunrise in Washington, D.C., January 25, 2014. (Maps by Unisys and Wunderground)

It doesn’t always end so good. Last weekend’s clipper chase was a  complete fail, as the storm dissipated crossing the Appalachian Mountains just before sunrise.  There are many weather-related spoilers that can ruin a colorful sunrise.  A few include: too many clouds, not enough clouds, hazy air, fog, and cloud banks just east of the horizon.

Predicting a colorful sunrise is never easy, not even a couple of hours before the sun is scheduled to rise above the horizon — the same can be said about sunsets.

The sunrise timeline shows the rapidly changing sky conditions that occurred from from dawn through sunrise, January 25, 2014.  The sky’s color and the mood of the scene changed within minutes.  As a reference for the timeline, sunrise in Washington, D.C. was at 7:20 am.  (Kevin Ambrose)

The sky was filled with color from horizon-to-horizon. This was the view facing north of the Washington Monument, January 25, 2014. (Kevin Ambrose)

Kevin Ambrose improvises Saturday morning at the Tidal Basin when his tripod did not function for the sunrise shoot. Actually, he forgot the tripod’s camera mount and deserved to freeze in the snow while snapping photos. The backpack solution worked, however. (Dennis Govoni)

A wintry evening and lots of river ice

Rosslyn and the Virginia side of the Potomac banks late in the afternoon of January 26. (Ian Livingston)

Nothing was quite going to beat the sunrise witnessed across the area that morning, but all the cold weather of recent has delivered increasingly formidable sheets of ice to area waterways, including the Potomac River around D.C. A sight to see.

While some ice isn’t unusual, the near total coverage as well as thickness is. We’ve had cold bouts throughout the winter, but January has turned into something special with two lows in the single digits at D.C., numbers not seen in one month since Feb. 1996 (2) or Jan 1994 (6).

Frozen Potomac over the years since 2004 and prior to 2014. (Kevin Ambrose)

The views remind one a little of photos from the 1970s, when people skated on the Potomac. This January is no 1977 (more than 10 degrees below normal compared to ~3 below normal so far in 2014). While some smaller ponds are perhaps now safe enough to maneuver on, it’s best to stay off ice unless you are very sure of what you are doing, and doing so on the river is always best assumed to be unwise.

Specific ice thickness aside, the Potomac sheet provided an excellent foreground to a very wintry late day. Occasional snow showers, steely gray skies, and the sounds of breaking ice on the river. Real winter in D.C.?

Looking across the frozen Potomac. US Institute of Peace at left and the memorials at right. (Ian Livingston)

Memorial bridge and D.C. near sunset on January 25. (Ian Livingston)

Potomac River winter dusk. (Ian Livingston)

Traffic flows along Washington Blvd and GW Memorial Parkway as dusk nears dark on January 25. (Ian Livingston)
Show Comments
Most Read

Heat Tracker

90-degree days year-to-date
Yearly Average
Record Most
67 (1980,2010)
Record Fewest
7 (1886,1905)
Last Year

At a Glance


-- /80°
Drop 80%


58° /67°


49° /72°


49° /74°


56° /73°
Drop 30%


49° /68°
National Airport

Right Now

D.C. Area Almanac

Avg. High
Avg. Low
Rec. High
Rec. Low
Next Story
Jason Samenow · January 27, 2014

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.