Much like four years ago, cold weather is on tap for the upcoming 57th presidential inauguration. Fortunately, high temperatures will likely not be stuck below freezing, as they were when President Obama first took office in 2009.
What are typical weather conditions on Inauguration Day in the nation’s capital? And which years had the warmest, coldest, wettest or snowiest ceremonies?
Historically, presidential inaugurations in the nation’s capital have been cold, if not frigid. Of course, prior to 1937 the inauguration wasn’t held until March 4 (or March 5 if the 4th fell on a Sunday). Yet interestingly, many March presidential inaugurations were nearly as cold, if not colder, than our modern-day January inaugurations.
Warmest and coldest January inaugurations
Washington, D.C.’s average high temperature on January 20 is only 43 degrees and the average low a subfreezing 28 degrees. At 12 o’clock noon – when the president takes the oath of office – temperatures typically hover around 37ºF with a wind chill slightly below freezing.
Most January Inauguration Days have in fact been colder than these averages suggest. Temperatures observed on all inaugurations since 1937 show an average high of only 40.1ºF and an average low of 26.6ºF.
While temperatures in the 30s are cold for watching a presidential motorcade, they’re a good deal warmer than President Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985. That year, temperatures on the morning of January 21 fell to -4ºF (a record for the date) and only climbed to 7ºF by noon. This blast of bitter arctic cold forced the oath of office to be held indoors and the inaugural parade was cancelled.
The 1985 swearing-in ceremony remains the coldest of all presidential inaugurations since D.C. weather records began. Ironically, it was preceded by the warmest January inauguration just four years earlier. When President Reagan took the oath of office in 1981, the temperature was 55ºF at 12 p.m., and peaked at 56 degrees later that afternoon.
Political wonks might be wondering: Which political party has had overall colder temperatures on Inauguration Day? Surprisingly, it’s the opposite of what some might expect.
Even when President Reagan’s frigid second inaugural is included in the numbers, temperatures at the swearing-in ceremony have averaged about 7 degrees warmer for Republican presidents than for the Democrats (since 1937, nine of the 19 January inaugurals were for Republican administrations, so the sample is about equal).
Wettest and snowiest
For the thousands of visitors packing the National Mall on Inauguration Day, precipitation is usually less of a spoiler than cold temperatures. The National Weather Service writes that there is about a 1 in 3 chance of measurable precipitation in the nation’s capital on January 20. Odds of measurable snow are smaller, with only a 10 percent chance of at least 0.1” of snow accumulation.
The wettest inauguration ceremony was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second inauguration in 1937. A total of 1.77 inches of rain fell that day (a record for Jan. 20), in what the NWS aptly describes as a washout:
Two hundred thousand visitors came to Washington for the inauguration… It was a cold rainy day… Between 11 am and 1 pm, 0.69 inches of rain fell. The ceremony began at 12:23 pm. The noon temperature was 33°F. At the president’s insistence, he rode back to the White House in an open car with a half an inch of water on the floor. Later, he stood for an hour and a half in an exposed viewing stand watching the inaugural parade splash by in the deluge.
The 1937 inauguration was the only time more than 1” of rain fell on the same date as the ceremony. Fortunately, subsequent presidential inaugurations were comparatively tame – until 1961 when a major snowstorm dumped 8” of snow in the nation’s capital the night before President John F. Kennedy took office (read more here).
Though most of the snow fell on January 19, the 1961 inauguration holds the record for “most snow on the ground” out of all the January ceremonies.
The snowiest inauguration: not in January
President Kennedy’s inauguration was notable for its last-minute snow removal efforts along Pennsylvania Avenue, but it was not officially the snowiest presidential inauguration. That distinction belongs to the inauguration of President William H. Taft in 1909.
A powerful storm brought a record-setting 9.8” of snow to D.C. on March 4, which crippled the downtown area and forced the ceremony indoors. The high temperature was only 35ºF that afternoon as gusty winds hampered visibility.
The 1909 ceremony was one of many early March inaugurations with cold comparable to what we see in January today. The second-coldest inauguration (other than 1985) was the second swearing-in of Ulysses S. Grant on March 4, 1873. The low temperature was a bone-chilling 4ºF and the high temperature that day was only 20ºF.
In its historical summary, the NWS writes:
During the day, bitterly cold winds gusted up to 40 mph. By noon, the temperature had risen to 16°F. Wind chill temperatures were -15° to -30°F. Cadets and midshipmen had been standing on the mall for more than an hour and a half without overcoats. Several of them collapsed. When the president delivered his inaugural address, the wind made his words inaudible to even those on the platform with him.
To this day, the 1873 inauguration remains Washington’s coldest March day on record.
Inauguration weather prior to 1873
Since official government weather records for Washington D.C. did not begin until 1871, weather conditions during presidential inaugurations prior to this date are based on unofficial reports.
The most dramatic and tragic conditions occurred in 1841, according to the National Weather Service. In blustery weather, President William Henry Harrison delivered a one hour and 40 minute speech and rode to and from the Capitol without a hat or overcoat. He died just one month later after developing pneumonia.
History buffs and weather enthusiasts can satisfy their curiosity with this comprehensive summary of inaugural weather dating back to the days of George Washington.
Here’s also a quick recap of the stats discussed above:
1937-2009 January Inaugurations:
Average temp: 33.4º
Average high: 40.1º
Average low: 26.6º
Coldest: -4º in 1985
Coldest high: 17º in 1985
Warmest high: 56º in 1981
Wettest: 1.77” rain in 1937
Snowiest: 1.2” in 1945
Average snowfall: 0.12”
1873-1933 March Inaugurations:
Average temp: 37.0º
Average high: 43.5º
Average low: 30.6º
Coldest low: 4º in 1873
Coldest high: 20º in 1873
Warmest high: 58º in 1885 and 1913
Wettest: 0.86” in 1889
Average precipitation: 0.23”
Snowiest: 9.8” in 1909