Rain, then look for bitterly cold conditions

It’s beginning to look a lot like what could be the D.C. region’s coldest Christmas in 20 years, as an arctic cold front arrives on Friday. Here’s what you need to know.

Sleet, freezing rain, snow, and heavier rain is expected overnight, ahead of a record arctic cold front. If you’re doing any last-minute shopping or errands, bundle up. It’s going to be a bit nippy.

The wintry conditions made parts of Interstate 66 icy north of Front Royal, Virginia, said Storm Team4 meteorologist Mike Stinneford. And many areas west of Interstate 95 have been below freezing since Thursday morning.

The wintry weather prompted schools in Frederick and Washington counties to close for the day. More schools and organizations are expected to close on Friday.

A Flood Watch for the entire D.C. area is in effect through 1 a.m. Friday. Up to 2 inches of rain is expected, and it will rain hard enough at times to cause high water in flood-prone areas and ponding on roadways.

The heavy rain will end Thursday night, and temperatures will stay in the 40s overnight.

But come Friday, plan to pull out your thermal gear and long johns.

Storm Team4 meteorologist Chuck Bell said a “Siberian cold front” will arrive before noon Friday. He said to expect a brief period of rain ending as snow between 5 a.m. and 11 a.m., before temperatures nose-dive into the afternoon.

Besides the drop in temperatures, Bell said to expect ferocious winds from the west that will gust near 40 mph from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, pushing wind chills below zero from 4 p.m. onward.

Wind chills will drop below 10 degrees Friday afternoon and stay there until Sunday afternoon. Bell advised people and their pets to limit time outside while it is bitterly cold.

A Wind Chill Advisory for the entire WTOP listening area is in effect from 7 p.m. Friday until 10 a.m. Saturday.

A High Wind Warning is also in effect for 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday west of the Blue Ridge, where gusts will hit 50 mph, but will be confined to the higher elevations west of I-81.

Rain will taper into a drizzle Thursday evening and fog will develop in spots. The fog will quickly lift when the Arctic front sweeps across the area between 8 and 10 a.m. Friday.

On the roads

Road crews in affected areas pretreated the roads ahead of Thursday’s icy weather but warned drivers to avoid travel on Thursday.

“Motorists, if traveling, should pack an emergency kit and blankets, and have mobile devices fully charged in the event of a breakdown or emergency,” VDOT said.

In Maryland, transportation department crews completed anti-icing operations in Allegany and Washington counties, which, as of 4 a.m. Thursday were under a winter storm warning. The National Weather Service also issued winter weather advisories for Garrett and Washington counties that began at 4 a.m.

“While we are expecting rain for much of the state, there is a potential for icy conditions in the higher mountain elevations,” Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration administrator Tim Smith said in a statement.

“So, we encourage folks with travel plans heading west to be extremely careful and, if possible, delay their trips a few hours.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said the state activated its emergency response operations in anticipation of the winter weather. He called for Marylanders to be prepared and adjust their plans as necessary.

As of Thursday afternoon, Grantsville in Garrett County, Maryland, has already received over 5 inches of snow, and whatever is left over on Friday can be expected to harden overnight.

MDOT SHA spokesperson Charlie Gischlar said elevated roadways, such as bridges, ramps and overpasses will be where motorists will find most slick spots, and crews will be out patrolling the roads Thursday and Friday.

“We’re going to have what we call a ‘flash freeze’ in some areas; there’s going to be a lot of moisture associated with this storm. So anything that does not have a chance to dry out will freeze tomorrow. So we’re going to be cognizant of that especially on the bridges, ramps and overpasses and be doing our shifts, putting out the materials to make sure the roads don’t freeze up,” Gischlar said.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said the District Snow Team plan to have 28 salt trucks on standby starting Friday morning in preparation for icy surfaces and light snow Friday morning.

Record-setting storm approaching?

The cold front rocketed through the Rockies and Front Range Wednesday with such a drastic drop in temperatures that records are being set. The National Weather Service in Boulder, Colorado, indicated that Denver International Airport dropped from 42 degrees to 5 degrees (37-degree drop) in one hour when the front came through earlier Thursday.

If the data is confirmed, it would be the largest one-hour temperature drop in history for the D.C. area. The previous record is a drop from 41 to 6 degrees (35-degree temperature drop) in one hour during the afternoon of Jan. 27, 2007.

That same front is poised to sweep to the East Coast later this week. Current trends indicate the cold front won’t lose any momentum as it pushes across the D.C. region Friday morning.

What will it take for Washington to set a record for largest temperature drop? The current record for fastest temperature drop in 24 hours is a loss of 47 degrees from Dec. 22 at 6:51 a.m. to 24 hours later on Dec. 23. The temperature dropped from 67 to 20 degrees in that time span.

Current projections show temperatures late Thursday will be in the mid-50s with the cold front expected to arrive between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. Friday morning and drop to the lower ‘teens by late Friday evening. Theoretically, the temperature could drop 43 degrees in just 24 hours from late Thursday to late Friday.

This would tie for the fifth largest drop in temperatures over a 24-hour period for Reagan National Airport. The other two times when the temperature dropped 43 degrees in 24 hours include Jan. 19-20, 1996 and Feb. 7-8, 1951.

The best way to dress if you have to go outside during the upcoming Arctic blast is with multiple layers because that traps body heat far more efficiently than one thick layer.


THURSDAY NIGHT: Moderate rain will taper off to a few showers. Lows in the 40s.

FRIDAY: Rain changing to snow and then ending. Turning windy and sharply colder. A morning high in the 40s, with temperatures falling into the teens by evening.

CHRISTMAS EVE SATURDAY: Partly cloudy, windy and cold. Highs in the low to mid 20s.

CHRISTMAS SUNDAY: Mostly sunny. Breezy, bitter cold. Highs in the mid 20s to low 30s.

Current conditions

WTOP’s Alejandro Alvarez, Jose Umana, Colleen Kelleher and Chad Merrill contributed to this report.

Matt Small

Matt joined WTOP News at the start of 2020, after contributing to Washington’s top news outlet as an Associated Press journalist for nearly 18 years.

Ciara Wells

Ciara Wells is the Evening Digital Editor at WTOP. She is a graduate of American University where she studied journalism and Spanish. Before joining WTOP, she was the opinion team editor at a student publication and a content specialist at an HBCU in Detroit.

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