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Anniversary of the Great Cold Wave of January 21, 1985

By: Christopher C. Burt, 7:57 PM GMT on January 21, 2014

Anniversary of the Great Cold Wave of January 21, 1985

Another arctic outbreak is heading into the eastern third of the nation today. Temperatures will be frigid (as witnessed by Embarass, Minnesota which bottomed out at -37° this morning (January 21st). But the current cold wave pales in comparison to what was happening at this time back in 1985. Here is a summary of that historic event.

Surface conditions for the eastern U.S. at 7 a.m. January 21, 1985. The coldest morning in the Southeast since February 1899. NWS/NOAA Daily Weather Map.

In what was the most intense cold wave to invade the Southeast of the U.S. since the great arctic outbreak of February 1899 temperatures on January 21, 1985 fell below zero as far south as southern Alabama and Georgia. All-time cold records were set at many significant sites from Chicago to Charleston, South Carolina. Here is a selection of some of the sites, with long historical periods of record, where all-time cold records were set:

List of significant sites with long POR’s that broke their official all-time cold records during the January 20-22, 1985 cold wave. The cities with the dashed lines under the temperatures are places that recorded even colder temperatures during what was likely THE worst cold wave ever experienced in the Southeast: that of February 8, 1835. The temperature on that date fell to -10° at Athens, GA, -4° at Augusta, GA, 0° at Savannah, GA, and 1° at Charleston, SC. Data from Weather Underground Record Extremes archive.

In addition to the cities above several state records for cold were also broken:

-34° NORTH CAROLINA, Mt. Mitchell on January 21

-30° VIRGINIA, Mt. Lake Biology Station on January 21, 1985

-19° SOUTH CAROLINA, Caesars Head on January 21

Actually, a temperature of -22° was observed at Hogback Mountain, South Carolina as well. It is not clear to me why this figure has apparently not been accepted as the ‘official’ state record (I inquired about this to the South Carolina State Climatology Office but never received a response).

In a way somewhat similar to the cold wave earlier this month, the January 20-22, 1985 event passed quickly across the region so that record low maximum temperatures were a matter of just where you were when the core of the cold air passed. We can see this clearly in the map below of max and min temps published at 7 a.m. ET on January 21, 1985. The maximum temperatures indicated were for the 12-hour period ending at 7 p.m. on January 20th and the minimum temperatures are for the 12-hour period ending at 7 a.m. on January 21st. Note the amazing ‘high’ temperature of -7° at Nashville on the 20th. However, the official daily max for that day in Nashville was actually 7° which occurred just after midnight on the 20th (the record low max for Nashville is 2° on January 12, 1918).

One can only imagine the frenzy that would engulf popular media should a cold wave of this magnitude occur again! ‘The Uber-Polar Vortex Attack!!’

Christopher C. Burt
Weather Historian

Extreme Weather Cold Temperature

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.