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January 21, 1985 – Coldest Day of the 20th Century in Eastern North Carolina

Event Overview –

The January 1985 Arctic outbreak was the result of the shifting of the polar vortex further south than is normally seen. Blocked from its normal movement, polar air from the north pushed into nearly every section of the eastern half of the United States, shattering record lows in a number of states. The effects of the outbreak were damaging. At least 126 deaths were blamed on the cold snap and 90 percent of the citrus crop in Florida was destroyed in what the state called the "Freeze of the Century." Florida's citrus industry suffered $1.2 billion in losses ($2.3 billion in 2009 dollars) as a result of the inclement weather. The public inauguration of President Ronald Reagan for his second term was held in the Capitol Rotunda instead of outside due to the cold weather, canceling the inaugural parade in the process. (Because Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday, Reagan took a private oath on January 20 and the semi-public oath on January 21.)

Temperatures in many locations of Eastern North Carolina fell to below zero for the only time this century (Figure 1). Numerous all-time record lows were set across the state of North Carolina including the state record of -34F at Mount Mitchell. Other all-time records lows set on the morning of January 21, 1985 included, -24F at Boone, -17F at Asheville, -5F at Charlotte and -7F at the Raleigh/Durham International Airport. Some of the record lows in Eastern North Carolina would be equaled or surpassed following the Christmas snowstorm of December 23, 1989.

Figure 1. Map depicting low temperatures on the morning of Monday January 21, 1985. (Courtesy Belkys Melendez)

Selected Minimum Temperatures from Monday January 21, 1985

New Bern

1 F

Morehead City

1 F

Cape Hatteras

6 F


-4 F


-5 F


-1 F


-1 F


-2 F




Synoptic Overview –

From Sunday, January 20 to Tuesday, January 22, 1985, a polar vortex, coupled with a large ridge of high pressure, moved polar air into the United States as far south as Florida. The frigid air mass moved east and south from the Plains during the day on January 20 with the surface map showing a massive 1048 mb high over the northern Plains at 12Z January 20 (Figure 2), resulting in frigid air for most of the central and eastern United States. The 500 mb pattern on January 20 (Figure 2), showed a closed polar vortex over Michigan. By the morning of January 21, the 500 mb vortex had moved to extreme Northern New England (Figure 3) producing the coldest morning of the century for many locations in the Southeastern United States, including eastern North Carolina.

 Figure 2. Surface Map at 12Z January 20, 1985 showing 1048 mb Arctic High covering most of the central U.S.

Figure 3. The 12Z 500 mb Analysis January 20, 1985 showed closed polar vortex over Michigan.

Figure 4. The 12Z 500 mb Analysis January 21, 1985 showed the polar vortex had moved to northern Maine.



NCEP Reanalysis Page

National Weather Service Daily Weather Maps




Case Study Team:
Chris Collins

Belkys Melendez