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Watch now: The five worst cold waves to hit the Midwest

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If it’s going to be cold, it’s probably right now.

On average, mid- to late January sees our coldest temperatures of the year in the Midwest. Right on schedule, it’s been pretty cold across the region this last week and below normal temperatures look to continue into the coming week.

But it could be worse. Let’s look back at the some of the coldest arctic outbreaks to ever hit the Midwest, based on data from the National Weather Service and National Centers for Environmental Information. 

Since each location has seen its coldest temperature at different times, there’s no good way to specifically rank cold waves. However, by looking at the lowest temperature ever recorded in each state, you get a pretty good idea of which arctic blasts were the worst. These five, listed in order of occurrence, stand out above the rest.

February 1899

While it’s not the coldest for all, this cold air outbreak probably has the strongest case for being classified as the worst.

On Feb. 10, Milligan, Ohio, hit minus 39, the coldest temperature ever recorded in Ohio. As even colder air surged in, Bridgeport, Nebraska, hit minus 47 on Feb. 12, the coldest temperature Nebraska has ever seen.

The arctic air pushed south and set record cold temperatures in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida that still stand to this day as well. In total, it’s responsible for more low temperature records than any other cold spell in U.S. history. It was so cold that the Mississippi River was completely frozen over north of Cairo, Illinois, and ice flowed all the way into the Gulf of Mexico. Snow fell all along the Gulf and East Coast, including Florida, where snow was reported as far south as Fort Myers, Florida.

February 1899 Temperatures

The lowest temperatures recorded across the country during the February 1899 cold wave.

February 1899 Picture

A rare snowball fight broke out on the steps of the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee on Feb. 13, 1899.

December 1989

This is the only December arctic outbreak to make the list. It’s certainly worthy though, due to its length and extent. Frigid air was already in place in mid-December, but the coldest was yet to come.

Ninety years after setting its state record, Nebraska would again see thermometers hit minus 47, this time in Oshkosh on Dec. 22. Scottsbluff, Nebraska, wasn’t far behind with a low of minus 42 that morning.

Other cities in the Midwest saw their all-time coldest temperatures including Kansas City, Missouri and Topeka, Kansas. Many more cities saw their coldest December temperatures, particularly across Central Illinois, where most cities reached 20 below zero or colder Dec. 22 and 23. This cold blast drew the most headlines for what it did across the South though. Freezing temperatures reached all the way to Miami on Dec. 24 and 25, and the Southeast Coast saw its largest snowstorm in history.

December 1989 Temperatures

December 1989 ranks as the fifth coldest December on record in the United States. Average temperatures were well below normal for the eastern two thirds of the country.

Lincoln Journal Star - Dec. 22, 1989

This clip from the Lincoln Journal Star on Friday, Dec. 22, 1989, shows coverage of record-breaking cold weather. 

January 1994

Perhaps the worst cold wave for the eastern part of the Midwest came in 1994. The temperature fell to minus 36 in New Whiteland, Indiana, on Jan. 19, setting the record for the lowest temperature ever recorded in the state.

Large parts of Indiana and Ohio saw temperatures of minus 20 or colder that morning. Indianapolis (minus 27), Columbus, Ohio (minus 22), and Cleveland (minus 20) saw their coldest temperatures ever.

The rest of the Midwest was not spared. Minneapolis-St. Paul stayed at or below zero for 142 hours, and all public schools were closed across Minnesota on Jan. 18.

In Chicago, the temperature dipped to minus 21. Thousands lost power and water in the city after multiple water lines burst. The cold and snow impacted the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast as well. Over 100 deaths were caused across the U.S. by this arctic blast.

January 1994 Temperatures

High temperatures on the afternoon of Jan. 18, 1994 and low temperatures on the morning of Jan. 19, 1994.

The Times - Jan. 20, 1994

This article from The Times of Northwest Indiana on Jan. 20, 1994, shows effects of extreme cold in the area. 

February 1996

This cold air outbreak was particularly bad in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and northern Iowa, with many locations seeing temperatures fall into the 30s below zero for lows and staying in the teens below zero for highs.

On Feb. 2, temperatures tumbled all the way to minus 60 in Tower, Minnesota, and minus 55 in Couderay, Wisconsin. Both of these set new records for the coldest temperature ever recorded in their respective states.

On Feb. 3, thermometers hit minus 47 in Elkader, Iowa, tying the state’s record low temperature. Incredibly, on Feb. 4, the temperature hit minus 55 again in Couderay, Wisconsin, tying the state’s all-time low just two days after it was set.

From Feb. 1-4, the average four day temperature was minus 18 in Wisconsin and minus 24 in Minnesota. In Rochester, Minnesota, temperatures stayed at or below zero from 6 a.m. Jan. 29 until midnight Feb. 5.

February 1996 Temperatures

Temperatures were well below normal across the Midwest during the February 1996 cold wave, especially in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa.

Wisconsin State Journal

A pedestrian walks through the intersection of Johnson and Park Street in Madison, Wisconsin, on Feb. 2, 1996, when the region was experiencing a bitter cold snap. 

January 2019

The most recent arctic blast on this list, it’s the only one so far this century to match the intensity of those in the 1990s.

After a significant snow for many, frigid air poured in across the region setting up two very cold days. On Jan. 30, the combination of very cold temperatures and gusty winds caused astounding wind chills that morning. From Central Illinois to Eastern North Dakota, many saw “feels like” temperatures reach 50 to 60 degrees below zero.

Chicago hit a low of minus 23 with a wind chill of minus 52, the coldest since 1985. The morning of Jan. 31 saw lighter winds, but even colder temperatures for some.

The coldest temperature was minus 56 in Cotton, Minnesota. Mount Carroll, Illinois, hit minus 38, the coldest temperature ever recorded in Illinois. At least 340 daily record lows were broken or tied over the two days.

January 2019 Temperatures

The coldest temperatures recorded during the January 2019 cold wave.

Normal, Illinois - Jan. 31, 2019

A commuter runs through the cold with his lunch along the board ramp at Uptown Station in Normal, Illinois, on Jan. 31, 2019.

Matt Holiner covers weather and climate across the Midwest. Matt has eight years of professional meteorology experience and has forecast every type of weather for cities across the country. He holds the National Weather Association's Seal of Approval.

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