America’s Most Extreme Arctic Cold Outbreaks


  • The worst cold outbreaks in history were both extremely cold and long lasting.
  • The February 2021 cold snap in the Plains and Deep South was the most recent example.
  • For pure oddity, though, an 1899 outbreak stands above them all.

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When you hear about an arctic outbreak coming, you may wonder about the worst cold snaps in United States history.

America’s harshest cold blast happened over 122 years ago, but there have also been some notable recent ones, including in December.

Here’s our comprehensive list of the coldest arctic outbreaks on record.

February 1899: The Clear No. 1

The cold wave during the first two weeks of February 1899 is far and away the standard for cold outbreaks in U.S. history.

The definitive paper on the Great Arctic Outbreak by Paul Kocin, Alan Weiss and Joseph Wagner referred to it as “a benchmark with which to compare similar events.”

Weather historian Christopher Burt described this as “the greatest cold wave in modern U.S. history” in his book, “Extreme Weather.”

What made this outbreak worthy of its lofty status was the magnitude, areal coverage and longevity of the cold.

Map showing the coldest low temperatures recorded during the February 1899 cold outbreak.

(Kocin et al., 1988; Extreme Weather by Christopher Burt)

For the first and only time on record, every state in the Union (there were only 45 states at the time) dipped below zero, according to Burt. Subzero cold invaded parts of south-central Texas, the Gulf Coast beaches and northwest Florida.

The worst of the outbreak took place in the days leading up to Valentine’s Day.

Tallahassee, Florida, dipped to minus 2 degrees on Feb. 13, 1899, the only subzero low in the city’s history. This remains the all-time record low for the Sunshine State.

All-time record lows were set in a dozen states from the Plains to the Ohio Valley, Southeast and District of Columbia. In addition to Florida, state record lows in Louisiana (minus 16 degrees in Minden), Nebraska (minus 47 in Camp Clarke) and Ohio (minus 39 in Milligan) still stand today.

Dozens of cities still hold onto their all-time record low from this cold wave, including Atlanta (minus 9), Grand Rapids, Michigan (minus 24), and Wichita, Kansas (minus 22). Temperatures as frigid as minus 61 (Montana), minus 59 (Minnesota) and minus 50 (Wisconsin) were recorded.

The Mississippi River froze solid north of Cairo, Illinois, and ice not only clogged the river in New Orleans, but also flowed into the Gulf of Mexico a few days after the heart of the cold outbreak.

Ice jams triggered floods along parts of the Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland and James rivers. Ice skating was the activity of choice as the San Antonio River froze.

Lacking snow cover, the ground froze to a depth of 5 feet in Chicago, damaging water, gas and other pipes.

New York City engineers found trusses on the Brooklyn Bridge had contracted 14 feet due to the cold, according to “Extreme American Weather” by Tim Vasquez. Due to frozen aqueducts from Catskills reservoirs, the city of Newark was forced to draw water from other rivers and bays.

Adding insult to injury, a massive snowstorm punctuated the cold outbreak from the Gulf Coast to New England Feb. 11-14.

Cape May, New Jersey, picked up 34 inches of snow, the nation’s capital was buried by 21 inches and 15.5 inches fell in New York City, overwhelming city crews and isolating suburbs.

In Florida, snow fell in Fort Myers; Tampa saw measurable snow for one of only two times in its history; and Jacksonville picked up 1.9 inches of snow. New Orleans was blanketed by 3 inches of snow.

Here are some other notable cold outbreaks since the historic 1899 outbreak.

February 2021

-Over 250 all-time cold records were tied or set in the Plains from the Canadian border to Texas and Louisiana, according to NOAA’s National Centers For Environmental Information.

-​Among those all-time records: Bottineau, North Dakota (minus 51 degrees); Sioux City, Iowa (minus 28); Lawton, Oklahoma (minus 12); and Tyler, Texas (minus 6).

-​Lows in Dallas-Fort Worth (minus 2) and Oklahoma City (minus 14) were the coldest since the February 1899 cold outbreak mentioned above.

-Abilene (252 straight hours) and San Angelo, Texas (152 straight hours), smashed their record streaks at or below freezing.

-​Almost 10 million customers lost power during the cold snap, primarily in Texas. At least 210 deaths in Texas alone were believed to have occurred during this extreme snap of cold and winter weather, according to NOAA.

-​Pipes frozen during power outages, then later bursting, led to water damage in many buildings in Texas and the Southern Plains. NOAA estimated total damage during the cold snap at $25.2 billion, the nation’s costliest winter-weather-related event since 1980.

City of Richardson worker Kaleb Love breaks ice on a frozen fountain Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in Richardson, Texas.  Temperatures dropped into the single digits as snow shut down air travel and grocery stores. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

City of Richardson worker Kaleb Love breaks ice on a frozen fountain Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in Richardson, Texas. Temperatures dropped into the single digits as snow shut down air travel and grocery stores.

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

January 2019

-A new all-time record low of minus 38 degrees was set for the state of Illinois in Mount Carroll on Jan. 31.

-At least three locations set new all-time record lows, including Moline, Illinois (minus 33), Rockford, Illinois (minus 31), and Cedar Rapids, Iowa (minus 30), on Jan. 31.

-At least 340 daily cold records were broken or tied in the Midwest Jan. 30-31, according to the Midwest Regional Climate Center.

-Wind chills in the minus 60s were recorded in portions of Minnesota, North Dakota and northeastern Iowa, and wind chills in the minus 50s were observed as far south as central Illinois and northwestern Indiana.

Winter 2013-14

– December 2013 through February 2014 was among the 10 coldest such periods on record in seven Midwest states.

– An early January 2014 outbreak brought the coldest temperatures of the 21st century, to date, for some cities.

– The winter was among the five snowiest on record in at least 10 major cities.

Late January-Early February 1996

– Minnesota state record: minus 60 degrees near Tower on Feb. 2, 1996. WCCO radio’s Mike Lynch broadcasted live from Tower that morning, during which he blew soap bubbles which then froze on the ground as a crowd watched.

– All Minnesota public schools shut down.

– Fears of natural gas shortage in northern Illinois prompted requests to reduce consumption.

Mid-Late January 1994

– Fourteen cities set all-time record lows, including Indianapolis (minus 27 degrees), Cleveland (minus 20) and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (minus 22). Pittsburgh (minus 22) beat its previous all-time record set during the February 1899 outbreak.

– Both Pittsburgh (52 hours) and Cleveland (56 hours) set their record stretch of subzero cold.

– Indiana’s state record low was set – minus 36 degrees at New Whiteland on Jan. 19.

– Thirty-five counties in Ohio plunged to minus 30 degrees or colder on Jan. 19.

– Worcester, Massachusetts, had seven straight days with subzero lows, a record stretch.

– Crown Point, New York, dipped to minus 48 degrees on Jan. 27.

– It was the coldest month on record in Caribou, Maine, with an average temperature of minus 0.7 degrees.

December 1990

– The most destructive freeze in California since 1949. Fifty percent of California’s citrus crop was damaged.

– Record 18-day freeze streak in Salt Lake City

– 2,000 children were stranded in Seattle schools due to heavy snow on Dec. 18.

– Randolph, Utah, bottomed out at minus 45 degrees on Dec. 22.

December 1989

– All-time record lows in Kansas City (minus 23 degrees), Topeka, Kansas (minus 26), Lake Charles, Louisiana (minus 4), and Wilmington, North Carolina (0).

– First Christmas Day snow (trace) on record in Tallahassee. Miami had a rare freeze, while Key West dipped to 44 degrees.

– 14 inches of snowfall at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on Christmas Eve.

– At the time, it was the fourth-coldest December on record for the entire U.S.

Due to the cold, President Ronald Reagan takes the oath of office for his second term as President in the Capitol Rotunda on Jan. 21, 1985.

Due to the cold, President Ronald Reagan takes the oath of office for his second term as President in the Capitol Rotunda on Jan. 21, 1985.

(Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

January 1985

– 13.2 inches of snow in San Antonio, Texas (Jan. 12), crushed the city’s previous 24-hour snow record. Austin and Houston (3 inches each) also were blanketed by this snowstorm.

– All-time record lows were set in Chicago (minus 27 degrees), Jacksonville, Florida (7), and Macon, Georgia (minus 6).

– State record lows were set in Virginia (minus 30 degrees at Mountain Lake) and North Carolina (minus 34 atop Mt. Mitchell).

– It caused $1.2 billion in damage to Florida’s citrus crop.

– Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration was the coldest Inauguration Day on record (7 degrees). The ceremony was moved indoors and the parade was canceled.

Late December 1983

– $2 billion in damage to agriculture, mainly due to freezing temperatures in central and northern Florida.

– As measured using the old formula, wind chills reached minus 100 degrees over much of North Dakota on Dec. 22.

– Williston, North Dakota, tied its all-time record low (minus 50) on Dec. 23.

– Sioux Falls, South Dakota, remained below zero from the morning of Dec. 16 until Christmas Day afternoon.

– Over 125 daily low-temperature records were broken on Christmas Day. Tampa’s Christmas Day high was only 38 degrees.

image

San Diego Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts shivers during the AFC Championship game in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Jan. 10, 1982.

(AP file photo)

January 1982

– Eighty-five deaths were attributed to the cold wave, according to the National Climatic Data Center.

– Milwaukee, Wisconsin, plunged to minus 26 degrees on Jan. 17, the city’s coldest temperature in 111 years.

– Montgomery, Alabama (minus 2), Jackson, Mississippi (minus 5), and Atlanta (minus 5) each plunged below zero.

– Snow at rush hour on Jan. 11 slickened streets, stranding motorists in Atlanta.

– Natural gas lines froze and up to 7 million experienced brownouts, according to Tim Vasquez.

– The second-coldest game in National Football League history, the “Freezer Bowl,” was played in Cincinnati, where a kickoff temperature of minus 9 greeted the warm-weather San Diego Chargers.

– Hundreds of cases of frostbite were treated at the stadium, including Bengals quarterback Kenny Anderson’s frostbitten ear.

January 1977

– Sixty-nine first-order weather stations shivered through their record-coldest month, according to Weather Underground’s Christopher Burt.

– South Carolina’s state record was set: minus 20 degrees near Long Creek.

– Temperatures did not rise above freezing for the entire month in a swath from eastern Iowa to western Pennsylvania northward, according to Burt.

– Snow fell as far south as Miami and Homestead, Florida, the farthest south occurrence of snow in the U.S., and 2 inches of snow fell in Winter Haven, Florida.

– 35% of Florida’s citrus crop was damaged; Rolling blackouts were needed in Florida due to heavy power demand.

– President Jimmy Carter walked 1.5 miles in the Inauguration Parade with temperatures just below freezing on Jan. 20.

– The “Buffalo Blizzard of ’77” added a foot of snow to the 33 inches of snow on the ground, accompanied by wind gusts to 75 mph, producing snow drifts up to 30 feet high, paralyzing the city.

January 1949

– It was the coldest month on record in Boise, Idaho, and Spokane, Washington.

– This also was the coldest winter at virtually every weather station in California, Nevada, Idaho and Oregon, according to Burt.

– A series of blizzards in the Great Basin and Plains claimed 150,000 sheep and cattle, isolating ranches from Wyoming to South Dakota.

– The Army airlifted supplies to snowbound ranchers.

– Snow fell in San Diego. It was one of only three measurable snowfalls on record in Downtown Los Angeles, as well.

– The all-time record low was set in San Antonio, Texas (0 degrees).

Winter of 1935-36

– This was the coldest Plains winter on record.

– Low temperatures dropped below minus 50 degrees on four separate days in Malta, Montana.

– Parshall, North Dakota, plunged to minus 60 on Feb. 15, still the state record low today.

– Langdon, North Dakota, remained below zero for an incredible 41 straight days, the longest stretch on record in the Lower 48 states, according to Burt.

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