Virginia’s coldest day on record happened 35 years ago Tuesday

Mountain Lake dipped down to 30 below zero

Morning lows on January 21, 1985

ROANOKE, Va. – On Jan. 21, 1985, our entire viewing area fell below 0°. In fact, Mountain Lake dipped down to 30 below zero. Until this day, that’s the lowest temperature ever recorded in Virginia.

Wytheville and Hot Springs got down to -20°, and Covington and Blacksburg dipped to -19° and -18° respectively. Roanoke, Lynchburg, Rocky Mount and Bedford were all right around 10 below that morning too. For a lot of us, it was the lowest our temperature has ever gotten (at least in recorded history).

What was so remarkable about this cold air outbreak is how far south it traveled. Orlando was in the teens, and Miami dropped to below freezing too.

Cold Air Outbreak - Jan 20 to 22, 1985

According to a write-up done by the National Weather Service in Wilmington, NC, more than 160 people died as a result of this outbreak. President Reagan’s inauguration parade was canceled too.

How is it that it could get this cold across such a large portion of the country? We oftentimes talk about the polar vortex, which is a semi-permanent area of low pressure that resides in the Arctic. Cold air gets wound up around this. Sometimes, pieces of the polar vortex break off and can send a wealth of cold into the U.S.

The map below shows the polar vortex near the Great Lakes around Jan. 20-22, 1985. This forced a big-league drop in the jet stream, which meant that Arctic air spilled into a large portion of the U.S. At the same time, high pressure over the Northern Plains kept this pattern locked into the eastern half of the U.S.

What caused this cold air outbreak?

Since 1985, there have only been eight other days when temperatures dipped below 0° in the Roanoke Valley. The last time that happened was in 2015.

So while it’s cold in our area currently, at least it’s nowhere near the brutal cold we felt around this time 35 years ago.

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