Looking back to the record chill of 1963

Published 7:00 am Saturday, January 23, 2021

By Skip Rigney

This week, in order to commemorate a cold anniversary, we will combine meteorology with music trivia. Perhaps the following song lyrics sound vaguely familiar to you:

“In winter 1963, it felt like the world would freeze, with John F. Kennedy, and the Beatles.”

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Those words were written and recorded by the British band The Dream Academy in 1985 in their song, “Life in a Northern Town.” Their success with that song probably qualifies the band as a one-hit wonder. Younger fans of country music may recall that the group Sugarland did a cover of the song about ten years ago.

As you might expect, I bring up this obscure piece of music history only because of its reference to the winter of 1963, which truly was a winter to remember, not only in Great Britain, but across the eastern one-third of the United States, including south Mississippi.

The average temperatures in the South and in the Ohio River Valley from December 1962 through February 1963 rank in the coldest ten percent of all winters from 1895 to the present day.

Tonight is the fifty-seventh anniversary of the coldest night of that winter in Pearl River County. Although temperatures on the morning of January 23, 1963, were in the 60s, later that day arctic air came crashing southward into the area.

By that evening, temperatures were in the teens across the Deep South and still falling. By the next morning temperatures in north Mississippi had plummeted to below zero. Just a little farther north, Nashville, Tennessee, bottomed out at a frigid 15 degrees below zero, that city’s third coldest temperature ever.

Here in Pearl River County early on the morning of January 24, 1963, the thermometer at the Poplarville Experiment Station registered 7 degrees.

That is one of only ten days that the temperature in Poplarville has fallen into the single digits in over 100 years of records. One of the other times was earlier that winter on December 13, 1962, when the mercury plunged to 8 degrees.

But, in south Mississippi, even in cold winters, the cold spells are interrupted by stretches of quite mild weather. Less than a week after reaching seven degrees, the temperature in Pearl River County rebounded and climbed into the 70s for five straight afternoons from January 30 through February 3, 1963.

It looks like the last week of January 2021 will have much more in common with that warm spell in late January 1963 than with the frigid blast that preceded it. While this afternoon (Saturday) is forecast to stay in the 60s, beginning Sunday and continuing through the middle of the upcoming week, lows are forecast to be in the 50s, and afternoon highs near or exceeding 70 degrees.

The weather looks unsettled through midweek with an abundance of clouds. The highest rain chances are currently forecast for Monday and Wednesday.

By Thursday a cold front strong enough to push out the moisture and showers should pass through the Gulf South and return our temperatures to more seasonably cool levels for the end of the work week.

However, there are no freezing temperatures on the horizon. Unlike the winter of 1963, I doubt the winter of 2021 will inspire any songwriters.