Looking back at some previous historic Houston cold snaps

With the deep freeze on the way to Houston, Eric thought it would be a good idea to take a look at some previous significant cold in Houston, so we can place this outbreak in historical context. As Space City Weather’s unofficial history guru, I’ve taken on the challenge!

Quick forecast update

Eric’s morning post does a nice job discussing what we know and expect over the coming days. Not a whole lot has changed, though I think three things stand out.

1.) First, there is a real chance that there could be some freezing drizzle or light freezing rain overnight tonight and Sunday morning. Please check with us or other local outlets if you are planning to travel anywhere tomorrow morning.

2.) Second, the start time of Sunday evening’s precipitation has sped up a bit, and we may see rain or freezing rain or sleet begin as early as 3 or 4 PM on Sunday.

3.) It seems colder air may push in here a little faster on Sunday night and Monday morning. This is both good and bad. It’s bad in the sense that we’re likely to endure a longer stretch of temperatures in the mid-20s or colder. It’s good, however, in the sense that this might lead to more sleet (or snow) and less freezing rain. Forecasting precipitation types is extremely challenging, as Eric noted this morning, so I expect more curve balls to be thrown our way between now and tomorrow evening, but at least this afternoon, it looks like sleet may be the more common precipitation type we see tomorrow night. We’ll have more for you in the morning.

February 2021

So, to begin our trip through history, let’s set the table with the current cold outbreak.

Current coldest forecast temperature: 10° on Tuesday 2/16
Nights forecast at or below freezing: Five

The current official NWS forecast low for Houston on Tuesday morning (at IAH Airport) is 10 degrees, which would rank as a tie for Houston’s 5th coldest morning all-time (back to 1889). Since official records have been kept at Bush Airport (1969), this would rank as the second coldest, with only December 23, 1989 being colder (7 degrees).

Some may try to talk down this cold outbreak because of its less impressive duration than, say, 1989 which saw three of Houston’s 25 coldest mornings on record. However, the current Monday through Friday forecast (as of Saturday afternoon) shows an average temperature of 28.5 degrees for the 5 day period. This would rank as Houston’s 12th coldest 5 day stretch on record. If that does verify, it will be our coldest 5 day stretch of weather since 1983. So this certainly qualifies as an upper echelon, if not historic cold snap.

So let’s look back at some other memorable Houston cold snaps through the years.

January 2018

Coldest temperature: 19° on 1/17
Nights at or below freezing: 10, split up over 20 days

We’ve gotten a few comments from folks questioning how this upcoming cold could be classified as “coldest in years” when we just had cold like this in January 2018. Well, the reality is that January 2018, while impressive, was split up over 3 weeks and came with comparatively mild daytime highs.

January 2018 had its share of cold, including our coldest morning since 1996, but we weren’t able to string together a stretch quite like this week. (NOAA)

We did hit 19 degrees, which at that time was our coldest low temperature since 1996. We managed to reach the upper 30s on both days, which isn’t overly impressive. That event also came with snow, sleet, and ice. Impressive, but probably not historic.

February 2011

Coldest temperature: 21° on 2/2
Nights at or below freezing: 12 over 2 weeks

Another one we hear about is 2011. I remember February 2011 vividly because I moved to Houston for a time that month and arrived at the end of January. Quite the welcome. Houston officially bottomed out at 21 degrees on February 2nd. We registered 5 straight days with lows in the 20s from February 1-5 and 4 days from February 9-12. There was also an ice storm of sorts on the 4th. Eric wrote about it at the Houston Chronicle. I actually remember forecasting this and it being a really good lesson in the challenges of forecasting winter weather in the South.

While this was not really a record-setting event in Houston, other parts of Texas saw some impressive records. El Paso’s coldest February day on record was February 3, 2011. Dallas was plagued with cold and wintry weather as well, marring the 2011 Super Bowl.

December 1989

Coldest temperature: 7° on 12/23
Nights at or below freezing: 14 over 2-3 weeks

In pantheon of modern Houston cold snaps, December 1989 is front and center.

The front page of the Houston Chronicle from December 23, 1989, the day after Houston officially recorded 1.7″ of snow and the day that Houston recorded the coldest December day on record. (Houston Chronicle)

Six record low temperatures still stand from 1989.

December 12: 25°
December 13: 19°
December 16: 19°
December 22: 13°
December 23: 7°
December 24: 11°

December of 1989 was Houston’s coldest December on record back to the 1880s. Between crop losses and other damage, the cold of December 1989 was estimated at the time to cause $300 to $500 million in damage (up to $1 billion in 2021 dollars) in Southeast and Coastal Texas, according to NOAA’s December 1989 StormData publication. This event merits a whole post on its own, which we’ll hopefully one day get to!

December 1983

Coldest temperature: 11° on 12/25
Nights at or below freezing: 12, including 11 in a row to close the month.

The December 1983 cold wave was another hall of fame event for Houston. We closed the month with 11 straight mornings below freezing, including four full days that failed to crack above 32 degrees.

The Christmas morning Houston Chronicle featured pictures of fountains turned into ice sculptures in Houston. (Houston Chronicle)

The 1983 cold snap caused an estimated $50 to $100 million in damage in Texas at the time (up to about $250 million today). December 1983 is Houston’s second coldest December behind 1989. December 1983 was to Dallas what December 1989 was to Houston, leading to their coldest December on record.

January 1978

Coldest temperature: 21° on 1/20
Nights at or below freezing: 20 (!) over the course of the month

The January 1978 cold snap doesn’t have much intensity on any single day, but it makes up for that in terms of duration, which ultimately led to 1978 being our coldest January (and coldest month) on record.

Frequent fronts ushered in cold, Arctic air through most of January 1978, which led to a low to moderate intensity, but sustained cold air outbreak over Houston. (NOAA)

The 1970s had some pretty amazing winters across the United States, and for Houston this was almost certainly the peak. Although, 1973 saw four days of snow in Houston between January and February.

January-February 1951

Coldest temperature: 14° on 2/2
Nights at or below freezing: 6 in a row

January 1951 started off quite mild with 14 days in the 70s. The switch flipped on January 28, when temperatures dropped 40, and then January 29 when they kept dropping to 24 degrees. We then had four straight days below freezing all day long. The January 29-February 3 period remains Houston’s coldest stretch of 6 days on record, averaging 26.3 degrees.

January 30, 1951 front page of the Houston Chronicle, one of several days that saw the region dealing with disruption and damage due to ice and excessive cold. (Houston Chronicle)

In addition to the cold, what is likely the worst ice storm in city history led to serious damage and disruption. Almost an inch and a half of precipitation fell during the cold snap. Another event likely worthy of its own post.

January 1940

Coldest temperature: 10° on 1/19
Nights at or below freezing: 11 in a row

The 1940 cold snap came with snow on January 22nd, with up to 3 inches reported from Houston into southern Louisiana and more elsewhere in the states. Only twice has Houston seen 11 straight days of low temperatures at or below freezing: January 1983 and January 1940. The 1940 cold is notable for both intensity and duration.

January 1930

Coldest temperature: 5° on 1/18
Nights at or below freezing: 8, coming in two 4-day waves

January 18, 1930 is Houston’s coldest morning on record, with a low of 5 degrees above zero. The cold came in two punches, this first strong one, followed by a second one a couple days later in which we bottomed out at 15 degrees on the 22nd.

The January 18, 1930 Houston Chronicle trumpeting the news of Houston’s coldest recorded day. (Houston Chronicle)

Five days after hitting 15 degrees, we were back up near 70, so further proof it won’t stay cold forever!

February 1899

Coldest temperature: 6° on 2/12 and 2/13
Nights at or below freezing: 9 in a row

The February 1899 cold snap covered most of the eastern half of the United States, and it could be deemed the granddaddy of them all in the South. Several records from that event still stand today, including the coldest on record for Amarillo (-16°), Dallas (-8°), Galveston (8°), and the Texas all-time record (Tulia was -23°, a record shared with Seminole in 1933). In addition to Texas, state records still stand or are shared today from this cold snap in Nebraska, Ohio, Louisiana, and Florida.

The February 13, 1899 edition of the Houston Post described the cold snap thusly:

“When a younger friend approaches him now and suggests to him, with a degree of profanity based on the length of time he has been exposed to the chilling, biting, nipping North wind, that ‘it’s pretty cold,’ the oldest inhabitant cannot yawn, draw closer to the welcome fire, and say, with an air of conscious superiority, ‘Yes, but away back in ’73 there was a norther that–.’ He has no recourse but to moodily assent, put a few more coals in the blazing grate and reflect on what has been, what might have been and what may be. And all this makes him sad, very, very sad.”

February 1899 is front and center in the pantheon of cold as well.

February 1895

Coldest temperature: 10° on 2/8
Nights at or below freezing: 12 over the course of 2 weeks

February 1895 was a memorable cold snap, with 4 daily records still standing today. But what set 1895 apart for Houston was our greatest snowstorm of 20 inches, which we conveniently wrote about back in 2017!

The final word

So, will 2021 join these memorable cold snaps? Probably. But ultimately, whether it really can join the ranks of a 1989 or 1983 or 1899 will depend on just how cold it gets Tuesday morning.

25 thoughts on “Looking back at some previous historic Houston cold snaps”

  1. So here is your next trivia challenge – when was the last time the entire continental US was at or below freezing? For a hint I think it was 1995 (or 1996)

  2. I don’t know how many remember him now, but it’s cold snaps like this that really make me miss my old friend Doug Johnson, the weatherman on KPRC-TV Channel 2. Doug would be having a ball right now, and he would also be the most-watched personality on Houston television through this thing. We lost him in January 2019 and I sure wish he could still be here.

  3. Thank you Eric and Matt for all you do. Why is the fear of long words called Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia?

    • Because if it were Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophilia we would have to love the word!
      Thank goodness for ctrl c and ctrl v

  4. Dec 1989…my wife and I were living in Atascocita South (north Houston)..and I remember it well! I remember driving down the street and and seeing water… coming under the front doors of MANY homes and heading out to the street…. from BUSTED water pipes…the wife and I assume that the homeowners had gone somewhere else for the holidays….what a horrible way to come home….these several days were the COLDEST days I ever spent in Houston…wrap your outdoor pipes, if your attic is inside your home (not garage) open it slightly to let HEAT into the attic, cover the soffits , outside your house by the kitchen to keep the COLD AIR from hitting your plumbing above you kitchen sink (cardboard works perfectly)…..Good Luck!

  5. Hasn’t the location of the reading site for “official” records changed a number of times over the years?

    A low of 10° in 1895 (measured at the official site at the time, which I’m guessing was in downtown) could have meant that the temp out in the country (such as where the official site is now, IIRC at Bush airport) was around zero degrees.

    If memory serves ( a big if) there was an official measuring site for downtown (in addition to the official site for the city of Houston), it’s final location, before it was discontinued, was on the Rice campus.

    More background here: https://www.weather.gov/hgx/office.

  6. I have to say i was always the one predicting (and fearing) that this would be a bitterly cold winter. We’ve been constantly downstream of the East Pacific Ridge (the one causing the California drought), and that has lead to an active winter. What was missing most of the winter was bitterly cold air which we have now.

    I admit I didn’t imagine it would get colder than Jan 2018. In my mind, that was the coldest it could get here but we are going well beyond that right now. I just saw KHOU 11 forecast a low of 4 at IAH. UNBELIEVABLE!!!! Count me a bit skepitcal it will get quite that cold but for sure this will be the coldest in 30 years.

    Can’t say I didn’t warn you guyz! But at least if we are going to have a cold snap we are shooting the moon with this one and going all the way.

    Now i hope there won’t be anymore complaining on this board when we get highs in the 80s and low in the 70s and it’s cloudy and humid. That type of weather was wayyyy too rare this winter.

    • So do you think this will start happening more often in the next coming winters? I have a feeling it will. We were having downstreams of cool weather since August last year. I’m curious about what you think.

  7. The 1997 Ice Storm is up there with 1989, and the impact to the region from that ‘97 storm was much more significant (at least as I remember it). Definitely deserves a mention.

    • Definitely don’t disagree, but for this post, we focused on extreme temperatures. Ice storms & snowstorms deserve their own post though, for sure.

    • I remember that one because I’d been home for the holidays from my college in Kentucky, and had a terrible time getting back with the cancelled flights!

  8. Hey gang, I didn’t see anything mentioned about the Snow we received in February, 1960. I have a photo of our house covered in a lot of snow in Kemah. If you would like to take a look at it let me know how to send it.

    • We were focused mostly on Houston’s most extreme temps for this post. Ice storms and snowstorms could take up their own special post!

    • And I would like to see the photo actually! If you could email it. My email is: matt at spacecityweather.com

  9. Matt,
    Thanks for your compilation. I have only been in the Houston area since 3Q 2013 however I can relate to the cold of Christmas 1983. I lived in Denver and conditions were brutal there as they pretty well were anywhere east of the Rockies.

  10. I was a lowly undergraduate in December 1989 and took a job loading 18 wheelers (night shift) in between semester to earn some holiday cash. Working the loading dock that night, I swore it was the coldest I had ever been. It wasn’t until I got home after the shift that I learned that it got down to 7F! Couldn’t get the water in the shower hot enough to thaw myself out. LOL.

    • A few times (very few) as a refrigeration and air conditioning mechanic I had to work in way sub zero walk-ins. No matter the number of layers and how heavy the coat five minutes inside was my limit. I can’t FATHOM people living in ares that’s an everyday occurrence at certain times of the year. We can gripe about the heat and humidity, but for me extreme cold is far worse. (living in Houston that’s a good thing)

  11. Holy Cow! I have a copy of that December 23, 1989 Chronicle front page because I’m in the photo. Ain’t revealing which one is me. It was afternoon and there weren’t many patrons at the museum as it was close to Christmas. So my colleagues and took our break at the hill. We were a little iffy about giving our names to the photographer but figured the guy who signed our paychecks wouldn’t mind if the museum’s name was in the paper. Then when we saw it we were all miffed because he got the museum’s name wrong! Fer cryin’ out loud dude, the name on the building was right across the street! Houston Museum of Natural Science, not natural history. It was fun, albeit unusual, break anyway. 😊

  12. I was here for the 1983 Christmas cold snap. As was my sister who was visiting for the holiday. Her visit ended up being longer than anticipated because her flights kept getting cancelled.

  13. For some reason, I remember a winter streak in December, I thought, in the late 1970s where the actual temperature was at or below freezing for several days, maybe a week? The esplanade between Main and Fannin near Hermann Park/Rice University was covered in beautiful ice formations from the broken sprinklers or something. I can’t ever find the data to back up my recollection, although your above description of January 1978 could be what I’m remembering, but I really remember it as a December event, right around Christmas. I remember the 1983 winter as we drove to Amarillo for Christmas and hit Ice at Temple and had to crawl the rest of the way up US 289. Took us *** 21 *** hours to make the drive. At least we made it, though. Had we gone via I-45 and I-20, we’d have been stuck in Dallas as I-20 was closed. Good times!

  14. I was running a paper in the Texas Highland Lakes in 1989 and the local electric cooperative was nearly brought to its knees with snapped lines (both from tree limbs falling through them and snapping on their own due to the weight of freezing rain). Fish froze in their aquariums because the power was out for so long. That also led to a near statewide power emergency and outage. Mighty close. The Texas grid is designed for freezing temps in Dallas which moderate as temps in Houston freeze. That year, it froze everywhere. Schools and industries that paid an “interruptible rate” which is lower, for natural gas and electricity were turned off to provide service to residents, grocery stores, hospitals, etc. Things are better now in Texas’ energy market. This was a great recap of our “coldest ever”

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