This Day in History: Record-breaking cold outbreak of 1985

Lows plummeted to well below zero in over half the country
Coldest temperatures ever recorded in Virginia occurred on this day 35 years ago.
Coldest temperatures ever recorded in Virginia occurred on this day 35 years ago.(WDBJ7 Weather)
Published: Jan. 21, 2021 at 5:21 PM EST
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(WDBJ) - Thirty-five years ago, January 21, 1985, Virginia and much of the country experienced one of the coldest Arctic outbreaks on record in the United States. Lows plummeted to the -30s in the northern Plains to even down to the single digits in Florida.

In fact, Virginia was one of three states that saw its all-time low temperature set as Mountain Lake officially fell to -30°. Could we see another record-setting event like this one? Let’s take a look!


It isn’t unusual for Arctic outbreaks to occur in the United States to some degree every winter. In 1985, it took an exceptionally large and strong high pressure system over Canada to force the jet stream to dive quickly south into the United States. The polar vortex followed and brought intensely cold, Arctic air with it. The Arctic front pushed as far south as Cuba bringing sub-freezing temperatures to nearly Miami!

A swift moving polar vortex was the key to record-setting temperatures as the front pushed unusually far to the south.

Below zero temperatures reached all the way into Georgia.
Below zero temperatures reached all the way into Georgia.(NWS Wilmington)


While technically not the coldest day in history for SW Virginia (December 30, 1917 holds that record for many), January 21st, 1985 was an impressively cold day. The entirety of our area fell below zero! The elevated valley of Mountain Lake allowed cold air to pool and set an all-time record low of -30°F for the state of Virginia. Lynchburg Regional Airport’s low of -10°F still stands as tied for the coldest low on record there.

Mountain Lake, VA-30
Marion, VA-26
Hot Springs, VA-20
Pulaski, VA-16
Lexington, VA-12
Roanoke, VA-11
Lynchburg, VA-10
South Boston, VA-7


According to NWS Wilmington, at least 165 fatalities were attributed to the weather. Other impacts like record high electricity usage were reported in the US. The inauguration parade for President Reagan’s second term were canceled with wind chills in Washington DC colder than -10°F.

In Florida, the “freeze of the century” resulted in the state’s citrus industry suffering $2.5 billion in losses.

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