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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.

Reader Comments

My parents don't remember much of that winter. Busy. They made the move to Nashville in the summer of '85 so my father could start his (current) job. To bad they missed that one.
Quoting 1. Astrometeor:
My parents don't remember much of that winter. Busy. They made the move to Nashville in the summer of '85 so my father could start his (current) job. To bad they missed that one.


I remember this well in Tallahassee and have mentioned it in many other blog response snippets. Basically +6F with 25mph north winds in Tallahassee. FSU was closed. High that afternoon was 28F under full sun.
I remember this cold snap vividly. It got to -2 in Elizabeth City, NC and it was a Monday. The pipes in my school froze and burst and made messes everywhere. We couldn't use the toilets all day.

That was the only subzero cold I ever saw in Elizabeth City but there was a -3 in December 1917 during the great 1917-1918 cold snap.
Thanks Chris for the very informative post.. :)
I lived in far North Central Florida not too far south of the Georgia border, and rode a motorcycle to the radio station at the time. Yeah, that was fun... ;-)
Thanks for the article. I hadn't realized it had gotten that cold with that event (perspective of south Lousiana) though I do remember seeing a couple stalled cars along I-12 at BR--dead batteries?

The stat that sticks for me is the length of time below freezing especially as manifested by ice and skaters on City Park Lake in Baton Rouge. That was a dubious exercise.

Found a nice write up of arctic outbreaks on the NO-BR NWS web site. They list them going back to 1886. Note January, 1962: "BTR 4 consecutive days below freezing with low 10F on 11th, 11F on 12th".

They also have these interesting comments.

"Impacts from these strong frigid air masses can be quite large, including unprotected pipes bursting, large fish kills in shallow estuaries, major agricultural losses to citrus trees, tropical foliage and seasonal strawberry crops, increased risk of structural fires due to faulty application of heating devices, and increased risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from inadequate ventilation of fuel-based heating devices. Economic impacts from Arctic Outbreaks along the Gulf Coast region can be comparable to a Category One hurricane impact."
The Jan '85 arctic core of cold certainly focused on the Southeast. For my local area (SE LA) low temps (12-15F) were similar to Jan '82 and Dec '83, not exactly a glancing blow yet the cold slightly less intense here than say GA / N FL. For the NW / N Cen Gulf coastal region (esp TX / LA), the Dec '89 outbreak was coldest of 20th century (single digits / low teens).

Being the outdoor adventurous type, during all of 'em I broke ice with my boat getting into lakes around the Atchafalaya Swamp, delighted by wondrous view of huge sheets of rime icing hanging from the cypress tree branches along the downwind shorelines... especially during '85 event as conditions were perfect for expansive growth rime ice deposition. Contrast to 1989, got cold so fast a majority of lake (Verret) froze up to 2-4" thickness, limiting the riming height and accretion but downwind shore side had snow atop the frozen lake surface.
Quoting 5. Neapolitan:
I lived in far North Central Florida not too far south of the Georgia border, and rode a motorcycle to the radio station at the time. Yeah, that was fun... ;-)


Jan 85 cold wave extended well south in latitude bringing unusually cold temperatures to the Caribbeans too.
It's amazing how some folk dare to label "historical" the 2014 cold waves, when they PALE (this is a term which gives a good idea) comparing to the cold waves of the past like 1985 and 1977 and if we going back m
Quoting 5. Neapolitan:
I lived in far North Central Florida not too far south of the Georgia border, and rode a motorcycle to the radio station at the time. Yeah, that was fun... ;-)


Jan 85 cold wave extended well south in latitude bringing unusually cold temperatures to the Caribbeans too.
It's amazing how some folk dare to label "historical" the 2014 cold waves, when they PALE (this is a term which gives a good idea) comparing to the cold waves of the past like 1985 and 1977 and if we go back more in time, there are even much much greater cold waves like in 1899 or 1934 just to name two of them.
It's much more exceptional what is happening in California in term of heat and drought than what has ocurred in Eastern USA.
10. rpk6
I lived here in Sarasota Florida and had a lot of damage to my tropical vegetation. I wonder if global warming caused that cold snap too?
weatherhistorian has created a new entry.
I remember this. It was a tad cold in Chicago. But if you wore clothes it wasn't that bad. We had a few frozen pipes to deal with. A lot of people stayed home simply because their cars wouldn't start.