Forecasters warn of ‘flash freeze’ threatening DC-area travel before Christmas

Snow-lovers keeping their fingers crossed for a white Christmas might be out of luck this year, but it’s sure to be a frigid and icy holiday in the D.C. region.

D.C. and Baltimore will escape the worst of a winter storm barreling through the U.S. interior this week, but steady rain for most of Thursday will make roads slick before frigid arctic air sweeps in Friday, threatening a widespread refreeze.

Some school systems in the area are making changes to their schedules for Thursday, including Loudoun County schools in Virginia, which said that school facilities are closed until noon; and Jefferson County schools in West Virginia, which are closed on Thursday. You can find the full list of closings and delays here.

Simply put: Heavy rain followed by plunging temperatures is a nightmarish formula for drivers, and if you’re planning on hitting the roads from Friday afternoon into Saturday morning, take notice. Expect delays.

“A serious flash freeze event is likely. Avoid any unnecessary travel Friday evening and night, since all those puddles and runoff from rainfall will be frozen solid,” Storm Team4 meteorologist Chuck Bell said.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser will place 28 salt truck from the District Snow Team on standby starting Friday morning in preparation for icy surfaces and light snow Friday morning. Residents are encouraged to sign up for AlertDC updates and to check on vulnerable neighbors. Those living in D.C. can also receive updates on road conditions on AlertDC’s Twitter page.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is advising drivers to avoid travel on Thursday, especially through the western regions of Virginia along the Interstate 81 corridor.

“According to current forecasts, wintry precipitation is expected to arrive as soon as 11 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 21 in the southwestern regions of the state, and move northward through the western third of the state, and into portions of northern Virginia through Thursday. Periods of heavy snow are expected along the northern sections of I-81 and the mountain passes including Interstate 64 over Afton Mountain and Rt. 33 between Stanardsville and Harrisonburg early Thursday,” VDOT said in a news release.

VDOT crews pretreated roadways and interstates Wednesday in anticipation of the weather event.

“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 were also out Wednesday doing anti-icing operations in Allegany and Washington counties.

“The storm will likely enter Maryland early Thursday morning in the form of rain. But extreme cold temperatures Thursday night and Friday could freeze roads,” the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration said in a news release.

“This is a busy week for holiday travelers and we’re asking them to be extra cautious as they make their way to see friends and loved ones,” said MDOT SHA Administrator Tim Smith. “While we are expecting rain for much of the state, there is a potential for icy conditions in the higher mountain elevations. So, we encourage folks with travel plans heading west to be extremely careful and, if possible, delay their trips a few hours.”

Far Western Maryland is expected to feel the greatest impact while the lower Eastern Shore is expected to get mostly rain, MDOT SHA said.

What’s the holiday weekend weather like?

Rain moves into the region after midnight Thursday, with temperatures lingering just above the freezing mark for most outside the higher elevations of Western Maryland and Virginia’s Blue Ridge.

The National Weather Service has issued Winter Weather advisories for Frederick County, Maryland, and western Loudoun and northern Fauquier counties in Virginia, for 4 a.m. to noon on Thursday.

The suburbs might wake up to a trace of snow Thursday morning, but the daylight hours will bring a long, soaking rain that’ll persist overnight into Friday.

The trouble starts late Friday morning, when a cold front will usher in what forecasters anticipate could be the season’s coldest air mass yet.

Friday morning’s temperatures of around 50 degrees are expected to rapidly plunge starting around 10 a.m. at the behest of powerful winds as the front moves through — with the Interstate 95 corridor dropping below freezing by midafternoon as the rain ends. While that happens, expect conditions on roadways to quickly deteriorate.

“There could be a brief period of snow, but accumulations of more than an inch are unlikely,” Bell said. “The real issue will be wet roads freezing up very quickly. Road crews will be unable to pretreat the roads due to the heavy rain which means they will be playing catch-up after the rain stops.”

Any surfaces wet from Thursday’s rainfall are sure to freeze and stay frozen through Friday night, as temperatures dive down to the lower 20s and wind chills hover in the single digits. Highways, bridges, overpasses and sidewalks are especially vulnerable. Persistently cold weather and blustery winds all mean the situation isn’t likely to improve much until road crews have had a chance to run their routes.

The bottom line: Avoid unnecessary travel from Friday afternoon through Saturday morning. If you must be on the roads, remember — slow down and leave plenty of stopping distance from the vehicle in front of you.


Wednesday night: Becoming cloudy. Dry before midnight, with rain likely by sunrise. Snow or sleet possible west of I-81. Lows in the upper 20s to mid 30s.

Thursday: Morning wintry mix possible, but steady rain by noon. Turning milder, with highs in the mid 40s to around 50.

Friday: Rain in the morning, then becoming windy with plunging temperatures. Morning highs near 50, falling to below freezing by evening.

Saturday: Filtered sunshine. Bitterly cold and blustery, with highs in the low to mid-20s. Wind chills near 10.

Current conditions

Alejandro Alvarez

Alejandro Alvarez joined WTOP as a digital journalist and editor in June 2018. He is a reporter and photographer focusing on politics, political activism and international affairs.

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