The D.C. area is looking at the prospect of five consecutive days with high temperatures below freezing for the first time since 1996, even as the morning temperature of 15 degrees Wednesday was the lowest recorded since 2009.
National Weather Service officials said that after sub-freezing days on Tuesday and Wednesday the area faces frigid weather on Thursday and Friday and possibly even Saturday, thanks to a "strong Arctic cold front" that's buried most of the country under ice, snow, and single-digit temperatures.
"We've been calling it Arctic, but it's essentially Canadian air, where it's 30 [degrees] below zero. It's actually cold there," Weather Service meteorologist Bryan Jackson said. "What we have is a trough of low pressure that brought air from the north to the south and across the mid-Atlantic. That was our cold front that came through Sunday afternoon."
D.C. area residents have been bundled up since Tuesday after weekend temperatures in the 50s, Mr. Jackson said.
If it seems like Mother Nature is playing a cruel joke, Mr. Jackson explained that it's normal for mild temperatures to precede a mercury drop.
"In the wintertime, when it's warm out it's generally before a cold front," Mr. Jackson said. "It's the dynamics of the atmosphere."
The average high this month has been 48.2 degrees, while the average low temperature is 34.7, according to the Weather Service. Only a "trace" of snow has fallen so far in 2013.
The average high and lows for January in the D.C. area is about 44 degrees and 28 degrees, respectively.
The mercury hit 27 degrees on Wednesday, forcing people on the city's sidewalks to huddle beneath their thick jackets and wool hats, their faces covered by scarves and hands jammed into pockets to avoid the blistering wind, which made it feel like 15 degrees outside.
Vicki Baumann, operations manager at the Granite Peak Ski Area in Wausau, Wis., chuckled when she heard the weather report in the District.
"Right now it's 10 degrees" in Wisconsin, Ms. Baumann said, noting the temperature without factoring in the wind chill. "We're used to this. We go through this every January; there's a warm spell and then a deep freeze."
Other parts of the country were also reeling from the frosty weather. Los Angeles hit a two-decade low last week when temperatures dropped to 34 degrees. States like Virginia and North Carolina could get a wintry mix of snow and sleet in the coming days, and for the D.C. area, Thursday morning residents could wake up to as much as a half-inch of snow on the ground.
Mr. Jackson said the low temperatures will likely stay through the weekend, though Saturday could warm up to 34 degrees. He said that, even if Saturday breaks the stretch of subfreezing weather, the last time the District shivered through four straight days of below-freezing temperatures was in 2007.
A respite from the biting cold is predicted for Monday and Tuesday, which are forecast to be in the 40s and 50s. But the boost in temperatures could also bring rain.
The low temperatures are a far cry from this time last year, when the D.C. area enjoyed its 17th warmest January on record with an average temperature of 49.3 degrees. The balmy month led into an equally mild February, which started off with a Feb. 1 high of 70 degrees.
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