While there is no way of knowing if there will be a major cold wave this winter, a look back at recent winters does reveal some interesting statistics.
Since the mid 1990s, there has been a notable absence of major cold air outbreaks, where temperatures fall well below zero across widespread areas of eastern Kentucky. In fact, the winter of 2011-2012 was the 16th winter in a row without a major cold air outbreak with widespread below zero temperatures. This unusually long stretch of winters without extreme cold is unprecedented in the last 100 years.
The lowest temperature recorded at the Jackson National Weather Service Forecast Office during the winter of 2011-12 was 12 degrees. This was the warmest winter time minimum temperature at Jackson since the National Weather Service Office opened in 1981. The following graph shows the lowest temperature observed at Jackson for each winter season dating back to January 1981. As can be seen there has been an absence of extreme cold weather events since the mid 1990s.
At London the lowest observed temperature during the winter of 2011-12 was 13 degrees. This was the warmest winter time minimum temperature at London since records began in the winter of 1954-55. The following graph shows the lowest temperature observed at London for each winter season dating back to 1954-55. As is the case at Jackson, extreme cold events have not occurred at London since the middle 1990s.
There are a few locations in eastern Kentucky where temperature records date back over 100 years. Farmers in Rowan County, is one such location. Records at Farmers date back to the winter of 1904-1905. The following graph shows the lowest temperature observed at Farmers for each winter dating back to 1904-1905. Once again the unusual absence of extreme cold weather events since the mid 1990s is very apparent.
Temperature records at Williamsburg, Kentucky date all the way back to 1896-1897. It should be noted that the observing station at Williamsburg was moved to a new location in 2004. The following graph shows the lowest temperature observed at Williamsburg for each winter dating back to 1896-1897. As is the case at Jackson, London, and Farmers, there has been an unusually long stretch of winters without extreme cold dating back to the middle 1990s. At Williamsburg the temperature has not been below zero since the winter of 1995-1996.
Does all this mean there will not be a major cold air outbreak in the winter of 2012-13? Not necessarily. Even though extreme cold has been absent for 16 years, we only have to look back to the winter of 1993-94 to find the coldest temperatures ever recorded in Kentucky.
In January of 1994 eastern Kentucky dealt with extreme winter weather from January 16 to January 20. A major winter storm dumped up to an inch of ice and anywhere from 6 to 26 inches of snow. Maysville reported 22 inches of snow, and 15.4 inches fell at the Jackson National Weather Service Office, with 15.2 inches falling within a 24 hour period. Drifts as deep as 10 feet were reported in some locations. All state, interstate, and federal highways were officially closed by a state of emergency for 5 days. Thousands of motorists and trucks were stranded, and dozens had to be rescued by the National Guard. Some towns were completely cut off by the snow, and were accessible only by helicopter. On the 19th record cold invaded the region. Low temperatures included -35 at Gray Hawk, -32 at Somerset, -31 at Grayson, -26 at Farmers, -25 at London and the Quicksand agricultural station near Jackson, -21 at Williamsburg, and -18 at the Jackson National Weather Service Office. The lowest temperature ever recorded in Kentucky, -37 degrees, occurred at Shelbyville on January 19, 1994.