A Coastal White Christmas: Revisiting the 1989 Winter Storm

For the North Carolina coast, dreams of a white Christmas came true 25 years ago in 1989. An ideal setup with cold air in place, a strong offshore low, and timing just before the holiday meant snow on the ground on Christmas for the first time on record in some parts of eastern North Carolina.

A Setup for Snow

In the week leading up to the winter storm, a strong Arctic high pressure system set up across the Midwest, delivering below-normal temperatures to most of the U.S. On December 22nd, the central plains saw high temperatures well below zero. Kansas City never topped -8°F, Omaha’s high was just -9°F, and Pierre, SD, had a chilly high of -12°F — all more than 40 degrees below normal.

Cold air was also in place across North Carolina. Statewide temperatures were below freezing on December 22nd and 23rd, with much of the state stuck in the teens. The Arctic air mass meant cold air was present throughout the atmosphere. The weather balloon sounding data from Greensboro on the morning of December 22nd shows that the entire troposphere was below -10°C, or 14°F.

High temperatures struggled to top 20°F across most of the state on December 23, 1989.

At the same time, a surface low pressure system formed to our southeast and began to strengthen as it moved up the coast over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. With an offshore low in place, that put us in a classic “Miller type A” setup, which is often the case for our big snowstorms.

Impacts from the Storm

The low was too far offshore for the Mountains or Piedmont to see any precipitation, but the North Carolina coast was in the perfect position for a major snow event. Around 10 pm on the 22nd, snow began falling across the southern coast, continuing for almost 36 hours in Wilmington, Jacksonville, and Cherry Point. Several hours even saw heavy snow falling with blowing snow reported, reducing visibilities to less than a quarter mile.

Unlike many of our wintry events, the precipitation started falling as snow rather than rain or sleet. The extent of the cold air across the country and its depth in the atmosphere were so impressive that even parts of central Florida received snow during the event.

Snow accumulations across North Carolina from December 22nd to 24th, 1989. (Map by the National Weather Service in Raleigh)

In North Carolina, the southern coast saw some of its greatest snow accumulations on record. More than 15 inches fell in Brunswick County, Wilmington, Jacksonville, and Morehead City. Even Cape Hatteras and Nags Head along the Outer Banks received a foot or more, with gusty winds resulting in snow drifts four to eight feet high.

The snow ended by the afternoon on December 24th, but it was slow to disappear thanks to lingering cold temperatures. On Christmas morning, all-time low temperature records were set at the Wilmington airport (0°F), Southport (-3°F), New Bern (-4°F), and several other weather stations. These sites dipped even colder than on January 21, 1985 — “the Coldest Day” that set the bar for frigid weather in North Carolina.

The snow and cold resulted in two deaths in Camden County in northeast North Carolina. One occurred when an elderly man went outside to get kerosene, fell in a snowbank, and froze to death. The other was when an elderly man died of hypothermia in an unheated home.

The Storm’s Legacy

For much of the southern coast, the December 1989 event remains the most significant snowstorm in recent memory. Wilmington and surrounding areas haven’t seen more than six inches of snow from a single event since then.

Snow covered the Cumbie’s backyard in Newport. (Photo courtesy of Donna Cumbie)

The rarity of such heavy snow plus the timing around Christmas made it a memorable event for those along the coast, including the Cumbie family, who were spending their first Christmas in North Carolina . Donna Cumbie shared their account of the storm:

We moved from Chesapeake, VA, to Newport, NC, in the summer of 1989. We had a 14-year old, a 3-year old, an 18-month old, and a baby on the way (due in October). The house we bought was not big enough, so our first big project was to add on to the house. We were hoping to have the addition completed by Christmas.

The snow started falling late on the 23rd. We were so rushed to get the addition completed that we delayed getting the “Santa” gifts for the kids. On the morning of the 24th, my husband drove to Cherry Point to pick up the gifts. It was quite the journey! The snow was really coming down and the winds were fierce, but he made it! The only thing missing was a Christmas tree. I painted a tree on the sliding glass door and we taped a few ornaments to the tree.

What a way to be welcomed to our new home in a new state but with a beautiful white Christmas!

The cold temperatures lasted for about a week so we had lots of time to enjoy the snow.

So while a white Christmas is rare in North Carolina, as the 1989 event showed, it’s not impossible, even for parts of the state that climatologically don’t see much snow.