North Carolina isn’t usually considered among the coldest states in the US, but there are some parts of the year where it can get downright frigid! Finding the coldest temperature ever recorded is easy, but what about the coldest month on record? We found one of the coldest winters on record. Let’s discover North Carolina’s coldest January, plus learn a little bit about the weather in the state.
The Coldest January on Record
Finding the coldest year on record was a bit tough, but from data taken between 1895 and 2022, the official answer is 1977.
The January of 1977 was the coldest on record in North Carolina, with an average daily high of 38.2°F, and an average low of 18.7 °F. It’s important to remember that this is a statewide average, and the temperatures fluctuate drastically from the warm coastal regions on the Atlantic to the heights of the Blue Ridge Mountains along the Appalachian Range. Although the average temperature was 38.2°F, it could have been much, much colder in the higher elevations of the state.
One of the Coldest Winters on Record
Outside of the official record listed above, there were a few winters in the late 1890s that were some of the coldest ever experienced. In articles dug up in the Wilkesboro Chronicle from the late 1800s in Wilkes County, the residents detailed some pretty extreme events. Wilkes County is just west of more well-known mountain towns like Boone and Blowing Rock and is firmly situated in the western mountain region of the state.
“The old inhabitants tell us that this is the coldest winter ever known here and continues the longest,” wrote editor Robert Deal in the Jan. 19, 1893, issue of the Chronicle.Journal Patriot
During the year of 1893, North Carolina experienced a prolonged period of freezing, during which the thermometer was regularly between 21°F and -23°F. According to the article, the cold lasted for around 30 days, and the ponds, rivers, and creeks totally froze over (something that doesn’t happen in North Carolina frequently). Additionally, snow blanketed the region and continued to fall for a few days, another rare event for North Carolina.
Since the data reviewed to find the coldest month wasn’t available until 1895, it did not include information from 1893, the year of the big freeze in the western portion of the state. If such data existed, it may unseat the record of 1977!
The Coldest Temperature Ever Recorded in North Carolina
The coldest temperature ever recorded in North Carolina was -34° F. It was recorded on January 21, 1985, at Mount Mitchell, the highest point in the state. Mount Mitchell is also the highest mountain in the United States east of the Mississippi.
Mount Mitchell is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains and is a part of the Appalachian Range. The elevation is stark when compared to the rest of the state. In fact, there is a unique ecological system that extends only along the highest mountain peaks of the Appalachian Range. Wildlife that lives in Canada and can’t tolerate hot southern weather lives along the peaks of the Blue Ridge.
The Split Weather of North Carolina
North Carolina is extremely unique regarding its weather patterns. There are two huge moderating factors that contribute to the unique weather system: the Atlantic Ocean and the Appalachian Mountains.
To the east is the coast and the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic has a moderating effect on the region, keeping the weather relatively mild, even in the winter. This moderating effect allows animals like the American alligator to thrive in the coastal plains, even in the cold.
During the winter, much of North Carolina is shielded from cold outbreaks by the Appalachian Mountains. These outbreaks often lose strength as they move south towards the Gulf of Mexico and do not have enough power to clear the ranges. When cold air does get through, it is usually not as severe due to the change in elevation as it descends the eastern slopes. The highest elevations of western North Carolina are usually snowier, colder, and much windier than the rest of the state. Generally speaking, you lose a few degrees of temperature every 1,000 feet in elevation.
Wildlife that can Survive the Cold in North Carolina
North Carolina is home to a variety of wildlife that has adapted to the cold winters in the state. The black bear is one such species that has been able to thrive in the colder regions of North Carolina. These bears have thick fur coats that keep them warm in the winter. They also rely on their stored body fat to get them through the colder months.
The Spruce-fir forests that occur on the high mountaintops in western North Carolina are home to a unique set of cold-adapted species. These forests are found at elevations above 4,500 feet. They are considered to be remnants of the Pleistocene era, isolated from the boreal forests of the north. The trees and plants that make up these forests have adapted to the cold, snowy winters of the high mountains.
Trout are another species that have adapted to the cold winters of North Carolina. These fish are found in the mountain streams and rivers of the state, where they rely on cold, clean water to survive. Trout are not able to survive in the warmer regions outside of the mountains.
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