The first big winter storm of the season is blasting up the East Coast this week. Although the snow may be relatively light (this is no Snowzilla 2016), the shot of cold air coming behind the storm will be enough to chill you to the bone.
The air has its origins in northern Canada. It’s racing south with gusto and gusts — up to 35 mph. When combined, the cold air and wind will generate wind chill temperatures below zero in the Washington metro area and well below zero in our northwest suburbs.
In short, the forecast is “brr.”
Even so, this cold snap will be nothing compared with some of the polar vortex outbreaks of the past. With each passing year, the chance of lasting, subzero weather dwindles. It’s possible we’ll never see scenes like the ones we note here again, at least not for any meaningful duration.
During the winter of 1886, an apprentice printer named Walsh ice skated from his home in Alexandria to his office in Washington, via the Potomac River. He bragged to his friends about his icy commutes.
In February 1936, the Chesapeake Bay was frozen so thick that Maryland State Police tried to push sleds of food across the bay to help the ice-locked residents on Tangier and Smith Islands. A blizzard struck during the rescue effort, and one policeman died due to hypothermia.
And in January 1977, the Potomac near the 14th Street Bridge was frozen so smooth and thick that it was transformed into a massive ice skating rink. Icebreakers were needed that winter to keep the shipping lanes open in the Chesapeake Bay.
While our recent cold wave may rival some from the past, the true benchmark for cold in Washington occurred Feb. 11, 1899, when the mercury dipped to minus-15 degrees.
During the winter of 1899, frigid air reached all the way to South Florida, and ice floes were reported at the mouth of the Mississippi, entering into the Gulf of Mexico. The cold weather was followed by a blizzard that hit the East Coast from Florida to Maine. The blizzard produced 10-foot snow drifts in the streets of Washington.
Another great cold wave occurred in 1912, over a six-week stretch from Jan. 5 to Feb. 15. The prolonged cold weather turned large sections of the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay into solid sheets of ice. Some notable temperature extremes recorded during that span included minus-13 in Washington; minus-19 at Laurel; minus-21 in Falls Church; and a truly-frigid reading of minus-40 in Oakland, in western Maryland.
During January of 1982 and 1985, subzero temperatures were recorded multiple times across the Mid-Atlantic region. On Jan. 21, 1985, President Ronald Reagan’s second Inauguration was the coldest on record. The low temperature was minus-4 and the temperature at noon was 7 degrees. The oath of office was moved inside to the Capitol Rotunda, and the parade was canceled.
Some of you may remember the cold December of 1989. Frigid weather moved in soon after Thanksgiving, and the Potomac was frozen before Christmas. During that December, Washington had a white Christmas while a blizzard slammed eastern North Carolina and Tidewater Virginia.
The winter of 1993-94 was also remarkably cold. On Jan. 19, 1994, the low temperature fell to minus-4, and the high was 8 degrees. The freeze prompted rolling power brownouts and school and business closings in the D.C. area. Ice glistened on trees for days in the prolonged cold that followed numerous ice storms.
And as recently as 2015, the Potomac remained frozen and covered with snow into the second week of March, which is unprecedented in modern times for the river to remain frozen so late in the season. Yes, Washington, from time to time, you do freeze over quite well.
We have a few more days of freezing temperatures to endure, and perhaps a little snow, so break out the ice skates and enjoy the cold weather. Or just stay inside and wait for a thaw. Here in Washington, it never takes too long for the weather to warm up.