My Top 10 Temperature Records of the 20th Century


by Jon Merrill


I have been following weather records closely since I was 13 in 1958, and even now, it is always exciting when my city or a city near me establishes a new monthly temperature record or experiences a record rainfall or snowfall.  In this document, I will count down my favorite temperature records nationwide for the 20th century.  Here goes:


10.  New York’s Mid-May Heat Wave in 1962.


New York Central Park’s reading of 99 on May 19, 1962 broke the May record by three degrees, and it occurred in the middle of the month.  It tied New York’s highest spring reading and far exceeded any mark thus far in the month of May, although in recent years, it has been seriously challenged, due to the fact that springs and summers are getting earlier and earlier as a prevailing trend.  I feel that a century mark in May will come in New York before too long in the 21st century, although as of now, no day in New York has ever touched 100 until June 26 (1952).


9.  Caribou, Maine’s Topsy-Turvy January in 1995.


Caribou, in northern Maine, established two monthly records in the same month, perhaps the only time that has occurred in US history.  On January 11, 1995, it was 33 below in Caribou, making a new January monthly low record.  Four days later, on January 15, 1995, it was 53, a new January monthly high record.


8.  The Incredible Northeastern Heat Wave in September 1953.


Actually, this heat wave began in late August and lasted for two weeks.  I remember this heat wave very well at age 8 when I was living in New Jersey, a few miles from Newark Airport.  In the last week of August, Newark had 100 or over on four consecutive days, a record that stood uniquely for 40 years until 1993.  On September 1, it was only 96, and everyone thought it was over; however, the big one was yet to come, and that was on September 2, when it hit 105, tying the all-time Newark record (still stands) and becoming a September monthly record that will probably never be equaled.  Almost every weather station in the Northeast still has their September monthly record high in 1953, and New York’s record string of 12 days in a row 90 or better in August-September 1953 is still intact.


7.  All-time Extreme Temperature Records for Several Cities.


Occasionally, a city will have an all-time high or low record that is so far removed from any other recorded temperature there that it seems the record will stand forever.  Examples:  (a) Duluth, Minnesota, 106 in July 1936, no other reading comes close.  (b) Fairbanks, Alaska, 99 in July 1919 (hard to believe!).  (c) Roswell, New Mexico, 29 below in February 1905 (December and January have no days as low as 10 below).  (d) Portland, Maine, 39 below in February 1943, far lower than any other reading ever in the city.  (e) Atlantic City, 106 in June 1969, no other station in the area even reached 100 that day, and Atlantic City has barely touched 100 on any other day in its history.  Compare with Newark, which has hit 105 several times, but never 106.  (f) New York Central Park, 15 below in February 1934 (14.3 below at the Battery).  In February 1943 it hit 8 below, but not one single day since then has ever been lower than 2 below, almost 60 years.  It is believed that the tall buildings in NYC have something to do with making the winter extremes more temperate than in the early part of the century, when many readings of 5 below and colder occurred on days with records that still stand today, including a 13 below reading in December 1917.


6.  Burlington’s Amazing Spring Day in 1995.


Burlington, Vermont, an hour from the Canadian border, went all the way up to 100 on June 19, 1995.  Keep in mind that this was spring, occurring prior to the summer solstice!  Boston and Philadelphia have experienced 100 in spring (June 1925), but New York has never done it, and yet Burlington did!  And Newark, New Jersey never did it until 1993.  Not to be outdone, Burlington went up to the century mark again a month later in July 1995.  Before that year, the city had been 100 or over only twice before, in 1944 and 1911.


5.  The Big March Heat Wave of 1998 in New England.


People thought that the historic March highs of 1945 would be around forever, but many of them were equaled and even exceeded in March 1998 in spectacular manner.  Many cities in the Northeast had 5 days in a row over 80.  Hartford, Albany, and Boston all reached 89 on the final day of the month, higher than other records in the New York metropolitan area.  Even more amazing was the fact that both Nashua and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, recorded 90 that day.  In March!!


4.  March 1984 in Brownsville, Texas.


On March 27, 1984, the temperature rose to 106 in Brownsville, Texas, on the Mexican border.  What made this record unbelievable was that this reading was the highest ever recorded in the city!  Higher than any temperature recorded even in the summer months!! 


3.  Salt Lake City’s Unique Night in November 1955.


On November 16, 1955. Salt Lake City dropped to 14 below, incredible for November.  Other than this amazing cold night, there were no other below zero readings in the month of November during the entire century.  It was particularly notable that this reading took place in the middle of the month.  (Another of my favorite records was Salt Lake City’s all-time snowfall record of 18.4 inches in mid-October 1984.)


2.  The Great Easter Sunday Heat Wave in April 1976.


The Northeast never saw an Easter Sunday quite like the one in 1976, when April monthly records fell at almost every weather station, some by several degrees.  On Easter Sunday it was 96 in New York, four degrees more than any previous April reading, and on that day New York was the hottest place in the nation (perhaps a unique occurrence in history).  New England was to receive the brunt of the heat wave the next day, the day of the Boston Marathon, when runners were dropping like flies.  Truly one of the 20th century’s most incredible temperature marks was set in Providence, Rhode Island on the 19th of April -- an almost inconceivable 98 degrees.  That April monthly high record is higher than Providence’s May or June monthly record!


(Note:  In 2002 it happened all over again in April, and even some of those 1976 records were eclipsed.  Not Providence, of course, not even close, but New York did climb all the way up to 96 on April 17, 2002, tying the 1976 monthly record for April.  Who ever thought that mark would even be approached again?  Newark, New Jersey hit 97 that day, exceeding its 1976 mark, and Philadelphia did it too with a 95.)


And finally, the granddaddy of them all in the 20th century.  My candidate for the most extraordinary temperature mark of the century is this one:


1.  The “Impossible” Winter Reading in Baltimore in 1990.


There was a general Northeast heat wave in mid-March 1990, with readings perhaps not quite as high as March 1945 or March 1998, but these readings were very significant, because they occurred in winter in the first half of the month, giving scores of weather stations their earliest 80-degree days ever.  New York had 85 on the 13th, and Newark had 86 the same day.  Three days later it went up past 80 again.  Atlantic City had 85 two days in a row on the 12th and 13th.  But none of these readings even held a candle to what happened in Baltimore.  On March 12, 1990, over a week prior to the vernal equinox, the temperature reached a high of 95!  That’s NINETY-five!  For a long time I thought that was a misprint in the newspaper until I researched Baltimore’s records on the Internet and verified that it was true.  It was 92 the following day on the 13th too.  In my over 40 years of following temperature records, I do not believe there has ever been a more freakish record anywhere in the country in the 20th century than Baltimore’s March 1990 astounding winter high temperature of 95 degrees.


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Honorable Mention, below the Top Ten but worth mentioning: 


76 in Newark and 75 in New York in December 1998, breaking the existing monthly record by several degrees.


March 1945, when it was in the 80s in the East even before the vernal equinox, and it stayed hot during the rest of the month until the hottest day of March 29, when it hit 89 in Newark, 89 in Washington, and 90 in Providence.


The Frigid Super Bowl Sunday on January 22, 1984 when Morristown, New Jersey was experiencing the coldest reading in the city’s history of 17 below zero.  On the same morning, nearby Newark was only 1 below, and New York was 8 above zero.  40 below in Chester, Mass.


The “Mother” of All Heat Waves in July 1993, when Newark hit an astounding mark of 103 or better for four consecutive days, hitting 105 on two of them, tying the all-time record for the airport.  On the fourth day of the string of records, the airport never got below 84 all night long, giving July 10 an average of 95.  Newark had 100-degree readings in all four months from June to September that year.


New Jersey’s state low of 34 below in January 1904, in River Vale, Bergen County, fairly close to New York City, although New York was only 5 below that day.


The Great Independence Day Heat Wave (I) of 1911, when state records for Maine (106), New Hampshire (106), and Vermont (105) were all set and still stand today.


The Great Independence Day Heat Wave (II) of 1966, when NYC hit 107 at LaGuardia Airport on July 3, the highest temperature ever recorded anywhere in New York City.  Harrisburg, PA (107) and Allentown, PA (105) also set marks that have yet to be challenged.  St. Louis recorded 6 consecutive days 100 or better.


January 21, 1985:  The entire eastern seaboard except Florida was below zero, setting dozens of all-time lows for cities, plus several state records.  Newark Airport (8 below) had its coldest day in over 50 years, and nothing has come close since.  President Ronald Reagan was re-inaugurated in Washington, where the noon temperature was 7 degrees, having been 4 below in the morning (coldest in D.C in the 20th century except for -5 in 1982).  It was also 7 in Jacksonville, Florida that day.  My current residence of Asheville, NC had 16 below on this day, the coldest ever recorded and 9 degrees lower than the second coldest reading.


Burlington, Vermont’s Amazing Cold Wave in February 1979, when the temperature never got above 5 degrees for 10 straight days, and most of those never even got up to zero.  30 below on the 12th tied the city’s all-time cold record.


The Dust Bowl Heat Wave of 1936, which affected almost the whole country, when about a dozen state heat maxima were set in July, most of which still stand.  The high records in July 1936 were most impressive:  picture Minneapolis at 108 degrees, for example.  New York Central Park’s all-time high of 106 still remains its high mark today.


January 1994 Cold Wave:  Almost every weather station in Pennsylvania and Ohio scored its all-time coldest day on January 21, 1994.  Examples:  Allentown* (15 below), Cleveland (20 below), Harrisburg (22 below; old record was only 14 below), and Akron (25 below). 


*In 2006 Allentown revised its records to reflect the early part of the century, making the 1994 day only the second coldest, behind 16 below in January 1912. 


Burlington and Buffalo’s Perpetual Freeze in January 1977:  For both cities, the high for the month was 30, never getting above freezing the entire month!


Allagash, Maine’s reading of 55 below in January 1999, which would have been a new cold record for all of New England, but the weather service examined the thermometer there and found it to be defective, so the record was disallowed, and 50 below in Bloomfield, Vermont on December 30, 1933 still stands as New England’s coldest day.


Significant Daily Record Lows and Highs close to each other:


2 days apart:  New York Central Park had records of 55 on July 4, 1986, and 98 on July 6, 1998.  Burlington, VT came close in January 1994 when it hit a record low of 29 below on the 27th, and the very next day it was 47; not a record, but it still represented a rise of 76 degrees in less than a day and a half.


1 day apart:  Atlantic City had a record of 28 on May 21, 1992, and a record high of 91 the very next day, May 22, 1992.


0 days apart (almost beyond human comprehension):  Actually, believe it or not, this has happened over two dozen times in the U.S. in the past century.  The biggest daily record high/low spread was at Las Vegas, where on the morning of July 13, 1972, the city hit a record low for the date of 48 and then climbed up 71 degrees during the day to set a record high for the same date at 119.  The place that did this feat with the coldest daily record low (11 degrees) was Kansas City, Missouri.  What made this day remarkable (November 11, 1911) was that the record low reading occurred at midnight, having set a daily record of 76 at noon, before the city experienced a drop of 65 degrees in 12 hours down to the record low of 11 for the date.  On that same date Springfield, Missouri dropped from 80 to 40 in two hours and down to 13 by midnight, a drop of 67 degrees in 10 hours.  Oklahoma City was part of that same weather phenomenon (known as the “Great Blue Norther”) on that date (11/11/11!) as well, having a record high of 83 and a record low of 17.  Both of those records still stand today.    



(Not the 20th century, but worth mentioning:  The Incredible Southern Cold Wave of February 1899, when Washington, D.C. hit 15 below, a mark far lower than any in the 20th century.  Tallahassee, Florida hit 2 below, the only time in Florida’s history that a below zero reading was recorded in the state.  Countless other states had all-time cold temperatures in 1899 which still stand today.)




Question:  How many states have been 100 or better?


50.  (Even Alaska, which hit 100 at Fort Yukon in 1919, believe it or not.)


Question:  How many states have been 0 or lower?


49.  All except Hawaii (the record is 12, set on top of a mountain).  Florida did it only that one time in 1899, as mentioned above.



More material forthcoming.



A 21st Century Item:  On August 2, 2006, LaGuardia Airport in New York City had a nighttime minimum of 86 degrees, the highest ever recorded in the area.  In that same summer, Needles, California had an overnight low of 100 degrees.


Also:  On April 28, 2010, it was 92 degrees in Portland, Maine, breaking the April monthly record by 7 degrees.