Austin weather can be notoriously fickle, and Christmas weather in Central Texas is no different.
On Thursday, just four days before Christmas, Austin marked the winter solstice — the astronomical start of winter — with spring-like temperatures as warm as 78 degrees — only 3 degrees shy of the daily heat record.
The National Weather Service’s outlook for Friday, meanwhile, calls for a 70 percent chance of rain as a cold front is expected to swing across Central Texas in the afternoon. Storms inspired by the front could produce up to a half-inch of rain in Austin and drop temperatures by double digits.
Friday’s rain should end in Austin that night, forecasters say, but drivers heading to Houston or the Gulf Coast for Christmas should be aware of lingering storms on Saturday.
Then, on a night when Austin temperatures typically range between 41 and 61 degrees, the holiday forecast this year calls for a much deeper, near-freezing chill on Christmas Eve, with the mercury expected to sink to around 34 degrees.
According to meteorologists, the jet stream — a river of air that tends to keep polar conditions far to the north of Texas — will plunge southward this weekend, allowing bitter arctic air to invade the southern Plains. Prepare for single-digit temperatures if you are planning to visit loved ones in the Northern Plains and the Upper Midwest, from the Dakotas to Minnesota and Wisconsin.
This arctic assault, represented by cold front pushing deep into the heart of Texas on Sunday, won’t encounter much moisture, so Texans ought to enjoy a largely storm-free but frigid Christmas, forecasters say.
Travelers heading north to Dallas should bundle up because temperatures there are expected stay mainly in the 40s. For those heading west toward El Paso, daytime temperatures will only be slightly warmer with highs in the upper 50s, according to the latest weather service forecast.
If your flying out of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport — which handled more than 1 million passengers in December last year — try to give yourself as much time as possible to get to the airport, officials say. They recommend getting to the terminal about two hours before your flight, especially during the peak hours for departures: 5 to 8 a.m., 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.
Texas AAA estimates a record 8.7 million Texans will travel during the holiday period of Dec. 23 to Jan. 1. On Thursday, Texas AAA reported that the average gas price statewide was $2.17 a gallon, which was a couple of dimes cheaper than the national average of $2.43 a gallon.
For holiday travelers hitting the road for Texas destinations but worried about highway construction slowing them down, the Texas Department of Transportation’s online tracker at apps.dot.state.tx.us/apps-cq/project_tracker has an interactive map to check the status of current roadwork by highway or county.
If you’re staying home in Austin, forecasters anticipate a Christmas Day no warmer than 54 degrees, which is several degrees cooler than normal.
Weather service historical data show that the teeth-chattering Texas temperatures on Christmas Eve might make Santa’s sleigh ride a little frostier than usual, but it won’t be his worst silent night in Austin.
The coldest Christmas temperature in Austin — as recorded at Camp Mabry, the city’s main weather station — was a nighttime low of 10 degrees in 1983. That day, temperatures never rose above freezing and topped out at 25 degrees.
The hottest Christmas in Austin was in 1955, when it hit 90 degrees – but temperatures still managed to cool down to around 47 that day.
For the record, snow has never been reported in Austin on Christmas Day, except for a trace amount in 1939.
Christmas weather in Austin
Christmas Day temperatures at Camp Mabry – Austin’s main weather station – have been as bone-chilling as 10 degrees (1983) and as sweaty as 90 degrees (1955). Here are a few more facts from the National Weather Service:
• The wettest Christmas in Austin was in 2000, when Mabry recorded 1.52 inches of rain.
• Since the beginning of weather record-keeping in Austin in the 1890s, 83 percent of Christmases have seen temperatures 50 degrees or higher.
• Only 20 percent of Christmases in Austin have experienced freezing temperatures at or below 32 degrees.