- Due to elevation, east Tennessee experiences cooler temperatures than middle and west Tennessee.
- The coldest temperature ever recorded in the state measured -32ºF in Mountain City.
- The state of Tennessee rarely experiences extreme winter weather like blizzards. However, there have been some rare cases.
While Tennessee experiences mild winter temperatures and little annual snowfall, the state’s coldest temperature on record might be surprising. The key to understanding the weather and climate in Tennessee is the ability to differentiate between the state’s three regions. Chilly temperatures in the state grow colder from west to east due to factors like elevation. While most of us like to stay inside during winter, many Tennessee animals find ways to cope with the drop in temperature. Discover Tennessee’s coldest temperature on record and learn which animals thrive in the cold.
Average Winter Weather and Climate in Tennessee
Tennessee’s climate is moderate, meaning that temperature extremes are infrequent. Winters in this state are cool, but they are rarely frigid. Due to elevation, east Tennessee experiences cooler temperatures than middle and west Tennessee. In fact, temperatures drop approximately 3ºF for every 1,000-foot increase.
The Appalachian Mountain chain runs through east Tennessee. Temperatures here are colder and snowfall is more frequent. The Smoky Mountains, a staple landmark in the state, experience January temperatures similar to those of central Ohio.
Due to differences in elevation and temperature averages, plant and animal life can vary according to the region. For instance, the Smoky Mountains include a diverse assortment of plant life between 1,000 feet and 6,000 feet of elevation.
The capital of Tennessee, Nashville, lies in the middle of the state and experiences average temperatures in the mid-40s during the month of January. Lows during this month typically sit around 30ºF. Across the state, winter averages lie between 41.1ºF and 53ºF, while minimums average between 10ºF and 27ºF. However, the coldest portions experience temperatures that drop down to -20ºF. Precipitation across the state can be abundant at 51 inches of rainfall annually.
Snowfall in Tennessee
Snowfall occurs near high elevations in the eastern portion of the state. Due to its latitudinal position, the remainder of Tennessee does not see much snowfall. East Tennessee near Knoxville averages 9.2 inches of snowfall per year. The Knoxville area receives the highest amount of snowfall during January, which averages 2.6 inches. The most snowfall that the Knoxville region has ever received measured 23.3 inches in February of 1962.
Middle Tennessee near Nashville averages 8.2 inches of annual snowfall. Like East Tennessee, the snowiest month of the year for the Nashville area is January. January averages 2.8 inches of snowfall every year. The maximum amount of snowfall that the Nashville area has ever experienced measured 18.9 inches during February of 1979.
In West Tennessee, the Memphis area averages 4.3 inches of snowfall per year, making it the least snowy portion of the state. Once again, the month of January records the highest average for snowfall in Memphis at 1.6 inches annually. The largest amount of snow seen in the Memphis region fell during the month of March in 1968. During this time, Memphis recorded a startling 17.3 total inches of snowfall.
Does Tennessee Ever Experience Blizzards?
The state of Tennessee rarely experiences extreme winter weather like blizzards. However, there have been some rare cases. The Nashville Ice Storm of 1951 lasted for four days. On January 29th, the Great Blizzard began dumping snow on the city. On the morning of February 1st, residents of Nashville woke up to 8 inches of ice and snow outside.
Consequences of the blizzard included loss of electricity, lack of transportation, the closure of businesses and schools, car accidents, and damage to power lines. The damage to transportation and power lines cost $2 million, which translates to $23.7 million in today’s currency. Two deaths resulted from car accidents, and injuries numbered in the dozens. Overall, Nashville was not prepared to handle winter blizzard conditions.
In addition, another massive blizzard devastated East Tennessee in March of 1993. The Cumberland Plateau experienced two feet of snow, and other areas, such as Jamestown, Tennessee, saw an even greater abundance of snowfall measuring 26 inches. Meanwhile, cities in Middle Tennessee received less than three inches of snowfall during the same period.
The blizzard of 1993 resulted in snow drifts measuring up to 10 feet tall, and harsh winds whipped through the eastern Tennessee region. This snowstorm, much like many of the major snowstorms to occur in this state, happened in the month of March. Other snowstorms during March have left a record 17, 8.7, 8.2, and 7.5 inches of snowfall in Nashville in 1892, 1996, 1968, and 1917 respectively.
The Coldest Temperature Ever Recorded in Tennessee
Due to East Tennessee’s high elevation and snowfall records, it’s not surprising that the coldest temperature ever recorded in the state occurred in this region. Mountain City, Tennessee, which is located just west of the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, holds not one but two temperature records. The coldest temperature ever recorded in the state measured -32ºF in Mountain City. Furthermore, Mountain City is the coldest location in the state, as it maintains the lowest average annual temperature of any other Tennessee city, at 52.1ºF.
Animals that Thrive in Tennessee Winters
Luckily for the animal kingdom, Tennessee winters are mild. However, when temperatures drop unexpectedly, many animals have specific mechanisms for coping with the chilly outdoors. For instance, bears, which are primarily found in places like the Smoky Mountains, hibernate during winter. These creatures will eat in excess before winter, consuming high-calorie foods. The bears store fat, which they can live off of during hibernation. Bears can hibernate in holes, caves, or atop trees. The body temperature of a hibernating animal drops, and the heart rate slows. Breathing also slows. If temperatures warm up for a day or so, these animals will often come out of hibernation to gather food. However, the entire process of hibernation lasts until the beginning of spring when temperatures steadily warm. Examples of other animals that hibernate include bats, chipmunks, groundhogs, and several insect species.
Unlike hibernators, squirrels stay active during winter. These small mammals will gather nuts and other foods and tuck them away in holes or dens. Once winter rolls around, squirrels have access to a large supply of sustenance. Deer also thrive during winter. Their coats grow longer as temperatures drop, and they forage for food throughout the season. When bad weather occurs, these animals know where to find shelter to stay safe. Foxes also stay active during winter, searching for small rodents to eat buried beneath the snow. Thanks to their acute sense of smell, foxes can detect mice through up to a foot of snow!
During winter, some birds will migrate far south to avoid the cold. However, others are adapted to the winter climate. Winter birds store fat by eating constantly during the day; this keeps them warm throughout the season. When nightfall arrives and temperatures drop, birds will slow their metabolism and trap heat within their body until daytime. Once the sun rises, birds will go out and look for food all over again. Some birds that remain in Tennessee during winter include the northern cardinal and the blue jay. Northern cardinal males have bright red feathers and red beaks. This bird species is often associated with the winter season and is a beautiful sight, especially when contrasted against the white snow. Blue jays are noisy songbirds with a rich blue coloration, and they remain in the state of Tennessee all winter.
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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
What was the coldest temperature ever recorded in Tennessee?
The coldest temperature ever recorded in Tennessee measured -32ºF in Mountain City, Tennessee.
What is the coldest region of Tennessee?
East Tennessee is the coldest region of the state.
How does elevation affect temperatures in Tennessee?
There is an approximate 3ºF decrease for every 1,000-foot increase in elevation in this state.
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