Climate History: The Great Arctic Outbreak of February 1899

February 1899 Maximum, Minimum, and Average Surface Temperatures Map

This map shows the maximum (solid black lines), minimum (dashed black lines), and average (solid red lines) temperatures across the contiguous United States in February 1899.

Over 115 years ago, a cold wave that would become known as the “Great Arctic Outbreak” took the United States by storm. People across the nation braced for the worst as temperatures plummeted throughout the first two weeks of February 1899. The western third of the country was the first to feel the bitter cold with temperatures dropping as low as 33°F in Los Angeles, California, 9°F in Portland, Oregon, and −9°F in Boise, Idaho, by February 4. And, by February 6, 30°F temperatures and below had made their way across the country and as far south as North Carolina.

However, the full force of the outbreak wasn’t felt until February 10, when some of the coldest winter weather conditions on record struck the eastern two-thirds of the United States. That day, temperatures across the Midwest and Ohio Valley were below −20°F, and even Washington, DC, recorded a low temperature of −8°F. By February 11, temperatures plummeted even further with Fort Logan, Montana, recording an astonishing low of −61°F. Even Florida couldn’t escape the bitter cold, and temperatures fell to the all-time state record low of −2°F in Tallahassee on February 13.

The Great Arctic Outbreak didn’t just bring cold to the nation. It also brought snow and ice and lots of it. By the time blizzard conditions ceased in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, Cape May, New Jersey, record over 30 inches of snow, as did Washington, DC, and Baltimore, Maryland. On February 17, ice was even witnessed flowing down the Mississippi River, past New Orleans, and into the Gulf of Mexico. And, a one-inch thick layer of ice formed at the mouth of the Mississippi in East and Garden Island Bays in Louisiana.

Over 100 people were estimated to have lost their lives during to the Great Arctic Outbreak. The outbreak damaged or destroyed numerous crops, and countless livestock perished. In Georgia, many orchards of young trees were killed outright, and farmers had to completely replant them. Ice in the Mississippi River and Great Lakes completely halted barge traffic. The cold, snow, and ice also heavily damaged buildings and infrastructure across much of the country.

For more information on the Great Arctic Outbreak, see the February 1899 Monthly Weather Review and “The Great Arctic Outbreak and East Coast Blizzard of February 1899” in Weather Forecasting.