Top Ten Winter Weather Events in Southern Indiana and Central Kentucky

  photo:  Angela Crecelius, Milltown, Indiana

 

1.  Record Snow and Incredible Cold
January 17 - 19, 1994
An intense winter storm brought copious amounts of snowfall to the region Monday the 17th, with all of Kentucky and southern Indiana receiving several inches of snow.  A band of particularly heavy snow set up from Shelbyville through Cynthiana where nearly two feet fell.  At Louisville a single-day snowfall record of more than 15 inches was set.

The heavy snow set the stage for what was to come next.  Behind the storm an intensely cold air mass dumped south out of Canada, sending temperatures plunging well below zero by Wednesday the 19th.  Not only did Louisville record an all-time low of -22 degrees, but Shelbyville set a new record low temperature for the entire state of Kentucky with a reading of -37!  Lexington came within one degree of their all-time record low.

 

2.  Great Ice Storm of '51
January 29 - February 2, 1951

An extremely strong high-pressure system started making its way into the region, pulling harsh, cold, polar air in with it.   In the meantime, a strong low pressure system was moving through areas farther south along a cold front, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico and up into the Northeast.  The cold front caused temperatures to drop, so that on the evening of January 30th, temperatures for Nashville, Tennessee, were only at 18 degrees Fahrenheit (-8 degrees Celsius).  However, temperatures just above the surface at 5,000 feet were actually above freezing, registering at 48 degrees Fahrenheit (9 degrees Celsius).  This was the perfect set up for the development and occurrence of freezing rain and sleet. 

In Bowling Green, almost 3 inches of snow and sleet had covered the city by morning of the 31st, causing roads to become almost impassible.  By noon, the snow had turned to rain due to the above freezing warmer air aloft, however on the surface temperatures had only risen to 28 degrees Fahrenheit.  This caused the rain to freeze upon impact, worsening the traffic situation.  Bulldozers were called out to help the effort and scrape the ice, with little effect. 

Then a turn for the worse occurred yet again.  By the next morning, on February 1, temperatures started dropping dramatically.  Before the day was over a low of -1 degrees Fahrenheit had been recorded, and another 7 inches of snow had fallen.  Travel by this point was virtually impossible, causing major delays for airlines, busses, and trains throughout the state.  Damage was reported throughout the region as tree limbs cracked and fell onto power lines due to the dense ice packed onto them.

The cold only continued.  At 4:45 a.m. February 2, Bowling Green recorded a temperature of -20 degrees Fahrenheit, the coldest official temperature ever recorded in February up to that time.  The precipitation continued as well, leaving behind 9 inches of snow and sleet on the ground in Southern Kentucky.  Crews were working around the clock to restore both power and phone lines.  Water pipes burst under the extreme cold, transportation remained halted, temperatures remained unbearable, and ten days later the area had yet to recover from the ice and the snow. 

The Great Ice Storm of 1951, as it came to be known, covered the south in a linear path of ice from Louisiana to Ohio.  Heaviest accumulations fell in a line from Memphis to Nashville, Tennessee and northeastward into Lexington, KY.  It was the costliest winter on record for the time, causing an estimated $100 million in damage.  The impact on forest, livestock, crops and fruit trees was responsible for $64 million of that total.  It is estimated that 25 people lost their lives across the areas affected by the storm, and another 500 were injured.

 

3.  Easter Freeze
April 5 - 10, 2007

Snowy track

Lexington, Kentucky
photo:  Steve Blake

After an unusually warm streak the last ten days of March, with temperatures topping out in the 70s and 80s each day, a cold front made its way into the Ohio Valley Region on April 3.  With the cold front came extensive severe weather, and afterwards replaced the once high temperatures with an immense area of cold Canadian air.  Temperatures dipped into the 20s and 30s in the mornings between the 5th and the 10th throughout Kentucky and Southern Indiana.  Bowling Green spent a total of 47 non-consecutive hours below freezing, with their lowest temperatures of 22 degrees Fahrenheit on the 8th of the month.  Louisville and Lexington both recorded impressive lows as well, with Louisville reporting 25 degrees on the 7th and Lexington 22 degrees for both the 7th and 8th.

Before the cold streak, the spring crops and plant growth were getting an early start with the excessive warmth for the time of season.  However, as the cold air set in for the week, the below freezing temperatures took advantage of the blooming vegetation.  Nearly all crops suffered losses, including most of the state’s peaches.  Half the wheat crop was destroyed, estimating at 63 million dollars worth of losses.  The same went for the area’s corn crop, which reported 5 million dollars in losses.  16 million was reported in damages for a 20 million dollar fruit industry, nearly crippling it.  Total losses throughout the Kentucky and southern Indiana region were well over 130 million dollars.  As fate would have it, this would not be the only problem set to take place on the crop industry for this year.  As the summer got up and going, a strong drought set in lasting throughout the early fall months of 2007.  After the April freeze had taken most of the crops, the drought was the end of any hope for a prosperous year in local agriculture.

 

4.  1998 Snowstorm
February 3 - 6, 1998

From the evening of February 3 until the morning of February 6, snow poured out of the sky, dumping as much as 25 inches onto parts of Kentucky.  Power lines were down across most of the Louisville CWA, roads became covered, slick, hazardous, and even impassible in some cases.  Over the next three days, three people lost their lives in weather related traffic accidents across the state, and another four were injured. States of emergency were declared for most counties in Kentucky.

Although the storm system looked like a typical Nor’easter for this time of year, taking a path from the Gulf Coast to the northeast along the Atlantic Coast, it was packed with strength and very slow moving.  With these two factors, enough moisture was pulled into the system from the Atlantic Ocean (not the Gulf of Mexico, as is usually the case) and the Appalachian Mountains proved no barrier for bringing the moisture farther west than a normal Nor’easter.  Heavy snows started on the evening of February 3rd in the southeast portions of the Louisville CWA, then travelled north reaching the Louisville metropolitan area shortly before sunrise on February 4th.   Areas of 10” plus of snow accumulations stretched all the way to the Ohio River by 7:00 p.m. EST. 

Most of the heaviest snow was limited to an area north of a Lexington to Louisville line, in areas such as New Castle of Henry County, where 25 inches were reported.  Totals were smaller for southwest portions of the Louisville CWA, measuring between 5-10 inches by the end of the event. It is said that these totals are not completely reflecting of the actual totals which occurred, in that during the several days of this event melting and packing took place, so that in reality snow totals could have been much higher.  By February 6th, 36 of the 49 counties in the Kentucky portion of the Louisville CWA had at least 10 total inches of snow on the ground.  Louisville itself broke its all-time storm total snowfall, reaching 22.4 inches (previous record: 15.9 inches on January 16-17, 1994), Oldham County reported an additional 11 inches of new snow on the ground by the morning of the 6th, and across other sections of central and northern Kentucky snow total reports were anywhere from 12 to nearly 30 inches.

 

5.  Christmas Snowstorm
December 22 - 23, 2004
two feet of snow
Milltown, Indiana
photo:  Angela Crecelius
A winter storm dropped snow onto sections of southern Indiana, and counties bordering the Ohio River in Kentucky, with accumulations up to 30 inches, causing drifts of 2-5 feet.  At times the snow fell at a rate of 4 inches per hour, with highest accumulations measuring 32 inches. Most roads in these areas were considered dangerous and impassible… but nothing compared to areas which were affected farther to the south.  Here the winter storm began with freezing rains, then changed to sleet and snow over parts of south central and east central Kentucky.  In some areas ice was ½ inch thick, in others they were up to a full inch, not to mention the addition of sleet and snow amounting anywhere from 1 inch to 4 inches, and in some places even up to 10 inches. 

Many residents were left without power for a long period of time, mainly in Franklin, Harrison and Scott counties.  33,000 Louisvillians experienced power outages for 2 days, where a total of 6 inches of sleet fell before the snow ever hit. Trees and limbs snapped at the weight of the ice across the sate, cluttering the roads which at this point were still impassible.  An airport hanger collapsed in Elizabethtown, destroying several airplanes.  Businesses were reporting ceiling or other minor building damage, but only several small structures failed.  Although most of the major interstates were able to remain open (with the exception of Interstate 64, and one lane usage on Interstate 65), many flights to the Louisville International Airport were delayed or cancelled.

Perhaps the most crippling aspect of this event was its timing.  Because it occurred right before the Christmas holidays, airlines suffered significantly and businesses lost millions of last minute customers.  It is said that the local businesses lost up to 80 percent of their expected sales during the storm.  This, along with the impassible roads and power outages made it a White Christmas not to soon be forgotten.  

 

6. Unrelenting Snow, Wind, and Cold
 January 1978
 Snowfall map
One blast after another of frigid arctic air poured into the central and eastern United States during the month of January 1978, making the month one of the top five coldest months ever recorded in southern Indiana and central Kentucky.  At Lexington, all but three days during the month were colder than normal, and 19 of the days were at least ten degrees below normal.  The worst of the icy air struck on the 9th and 10th with many locations dipping below zero with highs only around 10 degrees while winds gusted to 25 mph.
After several small snows during the first half of the month, a huge storm swept in on the 16th and 17th (see map above).  Louisville recorded an amazing 15.7 inches of snow, which was the snow of record until the January 1994 and February 1998 storms.
To close out the month, the legendary "Blizzard of '78" struck the Midwest and Great Lakes.  While snowfalls in southern Indiana and central Kentucky were only on the order of 2 to 5 inches, west winds gusted to 40 mph.  Due to the constant cold, much of the snow that had fallen during the month was still on the ground at the start of the blizzard, giving those howling winds 10 inches of snow to blow around (plus the additional snow that fell with the storm itself)!  Some area residents were trapped in their homes for several days, and a state of emergency was issued for all but the southeast corner of Kentucky.  Also of note, at 9:20pm on the 25th, Lexington set their all-time record for low sea-level barometric pressure:  28.82".
After the blizzard another cold blast surged in and took temperatures below zero once again.

 

 7.  Ohio Valley Ice Storm
 January 26-28, 2009
 Louisville, Kentucky
Louisville, Kentucky
Photo:  NWS
 

A wintry mix moved into southern Indiana and central Kentucky on the night of Monday, January 26, 2009. Precipitation began as light freezing drizzle and freezing rain over the entire area, but changed to sleet and then snow overnight into the early morning hours of Tuesday across southern Indiana and northern Kentucky. Up to 6 inches of snow accumulated across the northernmost sections of the CWA. Freezing rain continued over southern Kentucky. On Tuesday the 27th, precipitation changed to freezing rain over southern Indiana and northern Kentucky, and to rain over southern Kentucky. Ice over an inch thick was reported in many locations from the freezing rain. Tuesday night freezing rain and sleet continued over southern Indiana, freezing rain transitioned to rain over northern Kentucky, and rain, occasionally heavy, continued over southern Kentucky. Minor...mainly river flooding developed in some spots by Wednesday from the steady rain. On the morning of Wednesday, January 28, precipitation changed over to snow from northwest to southeast across the area. About 3 to 4 inches of additional snow accumulation piled up in the north, with less to the south.

The storm caused Kentucky's largest power outage on record, with 609,000 homes and businesses without power across the state. Property damage was widespread, with the damage due to falling trees, large tree limbs, and power lines weighed down by ice. In the Louisville metropolitan area, 205,000 lost power and it took up to 10 days to get everyone hooked back up. Area school systems were closed for an entire week. Several emergency shelters were set up across the affected region. In Louisville's local school system, 69 schools lost power.

 

8.  Bluegrass Ice Storm
February 15 - 16, 2003
Bluegrass 2003 icestorm
For areas in southern Indiana and north central Kentucky, freezing rain began to occur late in the afternoon of the 15th as temperatures began to drop on what was already a dreary rainy day.  By late evening the freezing rain had changed to sleet, and varied between sleet and light freezing rain throughout most of the 16th as well.  Accumulations were that of mostly sleet with some freezing rain amounting at one to two inches in most locations.  For areas farther south in the Louisville CWA, the freezing rain prevailed throughout the 16th with little sleet, temperatures falling into the upper 20s, giving reports of an inch in ice accumulations along Interstate 64, from Frankfort to Winchester. 

Most property damage for counties of southern Indiana and north central Kentucky was due to having to restore the power and clean up from the tree damage caused by the weight of the ice.  In Nelson County, for instance, about 2,200 residents wound up without power after the storm.  However, the hardest hit areas were in and around the cities of Frankfort and Lexington, where ice accumulations measured 1 ¼ inches on exposed streets, sidewalks, and branches. Here, an estimated 125,000 residents were without power for up to five days or more, trees were destroyed, branches cluttered the roads, and sections of Interstate 64 were periodically shut down during and after the storm.  A 78 year old man in Lawrenceburg tragically lost his life after sustaining injuries from a falling, ice covered, tree limb.  By the time the Bluegrass Ice Storm was over, 280,000 customers had their power knocked out, more than 3000 power poles were destroyed and nearly 800 transformers needed to be replaced.  The total cost to area utilities was about $47 million, with another $26 million used by local municipalities to clean up the damage.

 

9.  March 1996 Snowstorm
March 19, 1996

What happens when a deep low pressure system meets up with moisture from the gulf and below freezing temperatures at the surface?  BAD winter weather.  And what happens when it all meets up right over the state of Kentucky?  Well in March of 1996 it meant declaring a state of emergency for 22 counties across west-central Kentucky, and sending in 185 National Guard troops to assist police, doctors, and road crews in the worst affected areas.

As the low pressure system moved in on the early morning hours of the 19th, heavy snow began being reported across the state.  As the snow continued throughout the day, the west-central portion of the state faired the worst, totaling 10-12 inches by the next day, while east-central Kentucky only received 1-2 inches.  Drifting occurred as well, some measured as high as 12 feet in western Kentucky!  The heavy wet snow downed trees and power lines, shutting off power to over 37,000 customers.  Almost all the roads became extremely slick and snow covered, many of them becoming impassable, halting traffic, business operations, and any kind of normal activity throughout much of the west-central region of the state right in the middle of the workweek.   IThere was a state of emergency throughout a large portion of the state.

 

10.  No Sign of Spring
March 1960

bowling green co-op form

The Bowling Green observer's form for March 1960, showing the low of -6 degrees on the 5th, and 18 inches of snowfall on the 9th (plus another 14 inches of snow falling from the 2nd to the 11th)!

March of 1960 was one of the most unusual months ever seen in southern Indiana and central Kentucky.  The month should have heralded the beginning of warmer spring weather, but instead was amazingly snowy and cold.  As a matter of fact, at Bowling Green March of 1960 was not only the snowiest March on record, but was actually the snowiest month on record!  During the month Bowiling Green also received their heaviest snowstorm and heaviest 24-hour snowfall ever seen in the city.  At Louisville and Frankfort it was the snowiest March and 3rd snowiest month ever recorded.  At Lexington it was the snowiest March and 8th snowiest month on record.
The first snowstorm to strike the region came through on the second day of the month, and gave Bowling Green 5", Louisville 9.2", Lexington 7.5", and Frankfort 6.4".  Exactly one week later, low pressure formed over New Mexico and moved through the lower Mississippi Valley and on into the central Appalachians.  Huge amounts of wet snow dumped on the Ohio and Tennessee river valleys, including:  18" at Bowling Green, 9.2" at Louisville, 5.7" at Lexington, and 7.2" at Frankfort.
In addition to the snowfall, the month was incredibly cold for so late in the season.  It was, and still is, the coldest March ever seen at Bowling Green, Louisville, Lexington, and Frankfort.   It was so cold, that it actually stands a full five degrees colder than the second coldest March on record.  At Louisville and Lexington all but one of the first 25 days of the month were more than 10 degrees colder than normal, and during that time 8 to 10 days were more than 20 degrees below normal.  The worst cold outbreak of the month struck on the 5th and 6th, when the entire region plunged below zero.  The coldest temperatures ever seen in March occurred:  Bowling Green -6, Louisville -1, Lexington -2, and Frankfort -3.
After all that snow and cold, the weather finally broke towards the end of the month, and it broke in a big way.  Temperatures on the 28th soared to near 80 just three days after being in the teens!

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