Potholes: DC region’s winter commute problem gets an early start

When most people think of the pothole season, winter and early spring come to mind. However, just as the busiest week on the roadways commences, drivers heading to their Thanksgiving destination are seeing more potholes developing earlier in the season across the DMV.

The freeze-thaw cycle is the biggest contribution to pothole development.

Any residual water on roadways gets into the small crevasses in the pavement. The moisture will expand when it freezes at night, then the space it occupies will lessen when the ice melts to water during the day. This constant stress on roadways eventually weakens the asphalt and leads to large holes that can wreak havoc on cars that pass over them.

The more freeze-thaw cycles there are in a cold season, the more potholes will develop. Large temperature fluctuations and light winds, like we’ve had recently, contribute to significant pothole development.

While the DMV pothole season is traditionally winter, an early cold season onset is contributing to potholes already. Just two weeks ago, D.C. had highs in the 70s and 80s; a pattern change on Nov. 12 brought a string of colder-than-average temperatures.

More than an inch of rain fell on Nov. 15, followed by Canadian high pressure and sub-freezing morning temperatures under light to calm wind with afternoon highs in the 40s and plenty of sunshine.

The soggy-to-chilly-and-calm pattern has provided the perfect recipe for potholes to develop earlier than average. Any moisture contribution — even a water main break — can cause potholes to become a menace for drivers.

Pavement temperatures drop below freezing with light wind and clear skies at night. Meanwhile, sunshine during the day will work its magic and warm the pavement at least 10 degrees above than air temperatures. These wild pavement temperature swings are part of that freeze-thaw cycle.

A sustainable cold and snowy pattern is most likely to produce pothole fury: The 1977-1978 winter was so notorious for pothole development on the East Coast that a study of that cycle was published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology.

Until a sustainable warm pattern arrives in the spring, potholes will continue to develop in the region. However, they will be more prominent in the periodic cold patterns with precipitation that are followed by quiet but chilly weather.

Stay tuned to WTOP for the latest traffic report and the weather forecast on the 8’s.

Chad Merrill

Chad Merrill is a meteorologist and digital weather content producer for WTOP. Prior to joining WTOP, Chad was a meteorologist in the private industry and television. He loves to share his passion with listeners and readers and is eager to hear from anyone who has any weather questions!

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up