WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — It will be the first up or down fact check of a Barack Obama campaign pledge for his second term: Promised warmer Inauguration Day weather. Will he — or Mother Nature — deliver?
It’s looking like an uncomfortably close call — the emphasis on the word uncomfortable for people who will be outside on what’s predicted to be a downright chilly day.
In September, campaigning in Colorado, Obama was talking to a potential voter who mentioned he had been one of the hundreds of thousands of people outdoors at Obama’s bone-chilling first inaugural when the noontime temperature was an unseasonable chilly 28 degrees. Obama promised: “This one is going to be warmer.”
Scientifically, the president doesn’t have control of day-to-day weather. While his policies can lessen or worsen future projected global warming on a large scale, they cannot do anything about Washington’s daily temperature on Jan. 21.
Still, it’s a promise that for a long time looked close to a sure thing. The history of local weather was on Obama’s side. On average, the normal high is 43 degrees and the normal low is 28 but that’s just around dawn. There have been 19 traditional January inaugurations and only two were colder: Ronald Reagan’s second in 1985 was a frigid 7 with subzero wind chills and John F. Kennedy’s in 1961 was a snowy 22. Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inauguration also was 28.
And then there was the general warming trend Washington had been stuck in. The last time the nation’s capital stayed below freezing all day was Jan. 22, 2011. The city has gone a record more than 700 days since it had two or more inches of snow. The streak appeared to be in jeopardy this week, but the forecast snowstorm stayed south, leaving not so much as a dusting in the nation’s capital.
So a dozen days before Inauguration Day, when asked if it this inauguration would be warmer than in 2009, Mike Halpert, deputy director of the federal Climate Prediction Center said: “Sure, that would be something I’d bet on. Now looking at the (long-range computer forecast) models, I’d definitely bet on it. It’s very very likely be warmer than it was four years ago.”
That was more than a week ago. The forecast changed. An Arctic cold front looks to be racing toward the mid-Atlantic, so it will be cooler than normal, but probably not cooler than 2009, said Christopher Strong, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Sterling, Va., that oversees forecasts for the capital area.
Look for highs that day in the upper 30s with noon temperatures in the “middle 30s,” Strong said. That would keep Obama’s pledge.
“That’s certainly below normal,” Strong said. “It’s not as cold as it can be.”
The weather would be closer to normal for Cleveland rather than Washington, Strong said. And there’s a 30 percent chance of light snow showers.
But that Arctic front could move in faster than expected with even cooler temperatures, Strong said. So he put the chance of the noon temperature being colder than 2009’s 28 degrees at 20 percent.
Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the private service Weather Underground, said he thinks there’s a 30 percent chance that Obama’s promise won’t be kept.
Another factor is that earlier this month cold air suddenly appeared in the uppermost atmosphere and that often means considerably colder weather for America’s East coast for several weeks and it appears to be starting, said Climate Prediction Center forecaster Anthony Artusa.
Extreme cold on Inauguration Day, folklore says, can be a killer.
In 1841, newly elected president William Henry Harrison stood outside without a coat or hat as he spoke for an hour and 40 minutes. He caught a cold that day and it became pneumonia and he died one month after being sworn in. Twelve years later, outgoing first lady Abigail Fillmore got sick from sitting outside on a cold wet platform as Franklin Pierce was inaugurated and she died of pneumonia at the end of the month. Doctors now know that pneumonia is caused by germs, but prolonged exposure to extreme cold weather may hurt the airways and make someone more susceptible to getting sick.
And there’s one thing Washington’s history shows. Bad weather generally creates bad traffic jams. John F. Kennedy found that out in his 1961 inauguration when 8 inches of snow fell overnight and crippled the city for what at that time was Washington’s worst traffic jam. Thousands of cars were abandoned in the snow.