Winter Classic Weather: How Low Can It Go?

Don't expect this January 1st...but you never know!

Don’t expect this January 1st…but you never know!

It’s tempting to begin this piece with “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.” And I guess I just did.

Jason Samenow doesn’t so much do anything about the weather. But when he talks about it, people listen.

Samenow is the founder of what eventually became the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, probably the best-written and nerd-smartest commentary on all things meteorological in the DC area. Whether he’s writing about Derechos or La Niñas or just trying to tell everyone to chill the F out about an inch of snow, Samenow is the man in the know about weather.

A few days back he published his look ahead to a typical January 1st, and what we might expect next Thursday. We got him on the phone recently to see what else he might be forecasting:

Jason Samenow

Jason Samenow

“So a typical January 1st day is highs in the mid-40’s, lows in the upper 20’s, so for an afternoon game you’re probably looking at temperatures 40 to 45 degrees or so.  That’s an average year, but you have a lot of variability. It’s been as warm as almost 70 degrees on our hottest January 1st day, and as cold as, back in 1881, 14 below zero, but that was an anomaly. But you can certain have days with highs in the 20s to near 30 and lows in the single digits, so that gives a sense of the range.”

Is January 1st traditionally a wet or dry period?

“It all tends to average out. Precipitation, when you average it out over a long time, it tends to just all be the same day by day. What I can say is that if I look at January 1st in particular for snowfall, we’ve never had a block-buster snowfall on the first day of the new year. The biggest snowfall is 4 1/2 inches; compare that for some days later in the month or early February where we’ve got more than a foot. It’s not normally a time when we see crippling snow storms.”

What are the models suggesting about what we might expect January 1?

“We’re definitely looking at a colder pattern toward the end of this month and into early January. Now, does that mean that January 1st is going to be a cold day? Not necessarily. Some of the computer model guidance we’re looking at is that highs will struggle to reach freezing that day, whereas some of the other models are indicating something more season in the low to mid 40’s. So based on what we’re looking at now, we’re looking at a near-normal to below-normal day temperature-wise. Now there’s low confidence with that because if we get a storm that tracks to the north on that day it could push up some warmer air; on the other hand if a cold front comes through it could be downright cold. We’ll just have to see based on the weather systems at the time.”

Are there times of the year where the weather is just more unsettled and difficult to predict, and if so, is early January one of those periods?

“The last time we had snow in DC on January 1st was 1989, which is a long time to go without snow in January. It’s almost like we’re due. But in terms of the blockbuster storms and extreme events, we tend to see those more in the second half of January and early February. That said, we have had a couple big rain events in recent years on the 1st; in 2003 and 2007 we had over an inch of rain – we definitely want to try to avoid that if we can. But in terms of early January being any more extreme than other times of winter, I’d say no.”

Are you a hockey fan, and have you followed the Winter Classics in the past?

“Just a little bit. I’m kind of a band-wagon Caps fan; if they make the playoffs I start to pay attention. But I did pay attention to the Classic in 2011 when the Caps played, and was doing some forecasting for that.”

The weather has played a big role in some Classics. What’s it like as a meteorologist to be trying to forecast around such a big event?

“This is different, because most of the hockey games are played indoors, so with hockey and basketball weather is never a factor. This is the one time of year where weather plays a pivotal role and so the forecast looms large. Worst case scenario, like we saw in Pittsburgh in 2011, is we have rain and warm temperatures because that makes the ice surface awful. Obviously if you’re having heavy snow, or freezing rain or sleet, that’s going to affect the game. So there’s pressure on forecasters; pressure on the NHL to make the right decisions based on the forecasts leading up to the event.”

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