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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 12/ 2/2009

December weather: expect anything/everything

By Don Lipman

* Rain arrives: Radar & Full Forecast | Reaction to climate email flap *
* Latest on Saturday snow chance | KidsPost: Hurricane season recap *

The National Christmas Tree during a snowstorm, Dec. 5, 2005. By CWG's Kevin Ambrose.

On the tennis courts recently, a newcomer from South Carolina said to me "I hear the winters are pretty rough around here," at which point a former New Englander said "you've got to be kidding, Ed." As a former New Jersey resident, I've come to take these kind of weather comments in stride because as we know, it's all relative.

It's relative to both where we came from and to the kind of weather we're used to. Should we have even a moderately cold and snowy December this year, some would say, "I've never seen anything like it," etc., because that would be quite unusual compared to the recent past.

The fact is that with or without global warming, December weather, and winters in general, are quite variable here and around the country.

For instance, December snowfall has ranged from zero (many years) to 16" (1962). While the highest recorded December temperature was 79 degrees (1998), the lowest was 13 degrees below zero in 1880 and 1899. (All figures are from Reagan National Airport and its predecessor locations.) During modern times, even the average December temperature has ranged from a frigid 28° (1989) to a mild 46° (1950).

And before you think that the December weather regime will carry through the winter, I need only remind those who have forgotten (probably almost everybody except weather geeks like me) of the above-mentioned 1989. During late November of that year, a snowstorm swept up the eastern seaboard from Virginia to Maine, providing the first white Thanksgiving in many years to the region. Repeated snowfalls and frigid temperatures continued up until late December, causing a very snowy December east of the Mississippi (nine inches here) and the coldest here (27.9 degrees) since 1876.

I recall many who were dreading the forthcoming January and February 1990. As it turned out, and as happens so often, the jet stream did a complete flip-flop and those months turned out to be among the top warmest on record of their namesake. In fact, an odd footnote to that winter reveals that during astronomical winter (12/21/89-3/21/90) just 0.2" of snow fell. But on the first day of spring there was, in fact, a light snowfall in the D.C. area.

So what will this December's weather bring? Personally, I don't know, but in the absence of any unusually bitter arctic air in the source regions, I wouldn't expect a super frosty month. In any event, these are the averages for the month as a whole (based on the period from 1971-2000):

Avg. Max
Avg. Min.
Avg. Temp.
Avg. Precip.
Avg. Snow

Even if we encounter some industrial-strength cold, however, I'm not making weather-related changes to any of my long-term plans.

By Don Lipman  | December 2, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Lipman, Local Climate  
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I remember wearing shorts and going camping at VA Beach in '98 during the warm spell.

Posted by: spgass1 | December 2, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

This is a really insightful winter weather forecast. "Personally, I don't know." That's even better then saying you are "moderately unsure" it might snow.....

Posted by: DHinDC | December 2, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Yep, I remember 1989/ promising at the outset but turned out to be a REAL DUD of a winter!

Happens so often when December is really snowy...would prefer 1986/87...started mild, became snowy after my birthday [Jan. 15].

Posted by: Bombo47jea | December 2, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

DHinDC, the wording/meaning can be a bit funny with forecasters.

Another head-scratcher is ABC 2 Baltimore's 2 degree guarantee. It appears they give out a prize if they're right... but nothing happens when they're wrong... what kind of guarantee is that?

Posted by: spgass1 | December 2, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse


The author is not a forecaster and did not represent himself to be a forecaster. He's a weather enthusiast/writer who wrote an interesting piece on local weather variability here in December. Give him a break!

Posted by: CapitalWeatherGang | December 3, 2009 12:07 AM | Report abuse

Don, you're right. Today's weather is worlds away from yesterday's!

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | December 3, 2009 10:36 AM | Report abuse

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