Did you hear about the freeze of the century?
Almost 40 years ago, strong westerly winds sent a chill across the nation. The cold weather impacted every state east of the Rockies, and North Carolina was hit especially hard. On this frigid day, a new all-time record-breaking low temperature was recorded for the state and has yet to be seen again. Exactly how cold was it? Follow along as we reveal the coldest temperature ever recorded in North Carolina.
Coldest Temperature Ever in North Carolina
The coldest temperature ever recorded in North Carolina was -34° F on January 21st, 1985. This freezing temperature was at Mount Mitchell, a popular mountain in western North Carolina. But that wasn’t the only area in the state that experienced new lows. On this chilly day, temperatures were -24 ° F at Boone, -5° F at Charlotte, -17° F at Asheville, and -7° F at the Raleigh Durham International Airport.
Causes of the Record-Breaking Low Temperature
What caused the temperatures to drop to a frosty – 34° F in North Carolina almost 40 years ago? A weather event called a polar vortex was affecting the entire southeast. The event had a major impact across the nation. In the winter of 1985, record-breaking lows hit North Carolina, New York, Florida, and other states. Ronald Reagan’s inauguration speech had to take place inside, and they had to cancel the traditional inaugural parade.
What Is a Polar Vortex?
A polar vortex is a large area of low pressure and cold surrounding the Earth’s poles. This vortex strengthens during the winter and creates a counterclockwise flow of air. The motion of air keeps cold air close to the poles. But once the air expands, it travels southward, usually during winter.
North Carolina’s Polar Vortex
The polar vortex affecting North Carolina on its coldest day had a two-part problem. Not only was there cold air, but there was also a ridge of high pressure. Air quickly moved into the United States, going as far south as Arizona, Northern Florida, and Texas. Only one day before North Carolina’s coldest temperature, Chicago had a record-breaking low, too, a bone-chilling low of -27° F.
When Was the Last Polar Vortex?
The polar vortex that gave North Carolina its coldest temperature was in 1985. But that wasn’t the last time an arctic wind swept the nation. It happened again in January 2014, creating a North American cold wave in January 2014.
Following unseasonably warm temperatures, daytime highs dropped by as much as 50° F overnight. These extreme cold weather conditions affect lower latitudes than usual. That’s why the polar vortex of 2014 affected North America’s midwest, east coast, and south-central regions.
Why Did It Get So Cold at Mount Mitchell?
The coldest temperature in North Carolina occurred at Mount Mitchell, only 19 miles from Asheville, North Carolina. The mountain is known for having a humid continental, almost subalpine climate. So what caused this specific area to get so cold back in 1985? The area’s high elevation definitely played a role.
Mount Mitchell formed about 260 to 325 million years ago during the Alleghanian progeny, a mountain-forming event. The geological event included the Allegheny and Appalachian mountains. And it gave Mount Mitchell its 6,684-foot elevation, making it the highest point east of the Mississippi river. The North Carolina mountain is also the highest peak in North America’s Eastern mainland and the Appalachian mountains.
Fun Facts About Mount Mitchell
Covering the peak of Mount Mitchell, you’ll find a dense conifer forest with native red spruce and fraser fir. There’s also a diverse variety of flora, including bush honeysuckle, mountain raspberry, and red elder plants. Mount Mitchell is a popular camping, picnicking, wildlife viewing, and hiking spot, even though it rains a lot here. The mountain receives over 80 inches of rainfall yearly due to its high elevation. If you plan on visiting, be sure to bring your rain gear.
Average Temperatures in North Carolina
Living in North Carolina, you get used to hot, muggy summers and cold, wet winters, and it’s usually partially cloudy year-round. October and November are the driest months of the year, and July and August are the wettest months. On average, it’s common for temperatures to be 66° F in the eastern region, 60° F in the central region, and 55° F in the mountains.
Average Temperature at Mount Mitchell
Mount Mitchell has an average summer temperature of 66.8° F for July and an average winter temperature of 16.7° F for January. But even though 16.7 ° F is chilly, this mountain isn’t the coldest place in North Carolina.
Coldest Part of North Carolina
Banner Elk is a small town in Avery county North Carolina, and it’s also the coldest place in the state. On January 21st, 1985, Banner Elk temperatures reached -31° F. That’s only a 3° difference from the state’s record-breaking low of -34° F.
The small town’s high elevation contributes to this area’s cold temperatures. Banner Elk sits north of Grandfather Mountain and has an elevation of 3,701 ft.
Wildlife in North Carolina
Some of the most common wildlife in North Carolina include whitetail deer, gray foxes, bobcats, and striped skunks. You’ll also find armadillos, black bears, American beavers, eastern chipmunks, whitetail deer, and bats roaming the forests. Finally, there are 21 turtle species like the diamondback terrapin, Eastern box turtle, yellow-bellied slider, and others. You’ll even find even a few alligators here.
How Does North Carolina’s Wildlife Survive the Cold?
How did the critters cope with the freezing temperatures?
Certain species migrate, hibernate, or use unique winter tactics to stay warm. For instance, the honey bees in North Carolina survive by using collective body heat as they cluster in the hive. They also rely on the food stored in the hive to make it through the chilly weather.
As for the bumblebees, most of them usually die during the cold season. The only exception is the queen bees. They go to the deepest part of the nest to hibernate when things start to cool down.
A lot of the insect species survive the cold temperature by migrating. For instance, the wandering glider, black saddlebag, and spot-winged glider dragonfly all migrate during the winter. Whereas a lot of the small animals, like chipmunks, mice, and squirrels, don’t hibernate or migrate. Instead, they begin consuming more calories and stockpiling surplus food.
How Do the Birds Survive the Cold?
North Carolina has 50 species of birds that stay year-round. Examples include the Carolina chickadee, Eastern bluebird, and song sparrow. Some of their winter-time adaptations include extra down feathers or roosting in the same cavity to stay warm. The Carolina Chickadee even slips into torpor, a state similar to hibernation. Torpor is when an animal’s metabolism and body temperature drops to conserve energy.
Final Thoughts on the Coldest Temperature in North Carolina
Now you know all about the coldest temperature in North Carolina ever. The record-breaking temperature was a frosty -34° F at Mount Mitchell on January 21st, 1985. And even though Mount Mitchell is where the record-breaking temperature happened, it’s not the coldest part of the state. That title belongs to the small and popular town of Banner Elk.
The cause of the frigid winter of 1985 was a polar vortex or arctic wind pushing cold air across the nation. Freezing temperatures reached North Carolina, Texas, Northern Florida, and other areas.
Could temperatures ever reach -34° F in North Carolina again? Absolutely! All it would take is another polar vortex, similar to the one that hit the United States in January 2014. If a similar arctic wind was to form, North Carolina could experience record-breaking lows overnight.
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