Past presidential inaugurations have often been cold and dry, which isn’t too surprising as the event coincides with Washington’s lowest average temperatures of the year. The District’s average high temperature Jan. 20 is 43 degrees and the average low is 28.
At noon, temperatures typically hover around 37 degrees with a wind chill slightly below freezing, according to records kept by the National Weather Service.
Most January inaugurations have been slightly colder than these averages, however. Since 1937, inaugurations have had an average high temperature of 40.9 degrees and an average low of 27.5 degrees. The warmest it’s been in Washington on Jan. 20 was 70 degrees in 1951, but it wasn’t an inauguration year. Surprisingly, no January inauguration has hit 60 degrees.
Until 1937, the inauguration wasn’t held until March 4 (or March 5 if the 4th fell on a Sunday). But even though the inauguration used to happen six weeks later — and closer to spring — many March ceremonies were nearly as cold, if not colder, than many of our modern-day January events.
Warmest and coldest inaugurations
The warmest and coldest inaugurations occurred four years apart. When President Ronald Reagan was first sworn into office in 1981, it was 55 degrees, and the temperature in Washington hit 56 that afternoon. Four years later was a markedly different affair. On Jan. 21, 1985, a blast of Arctic cold forced Reagan to take the oath of office indoors, and the inaugural parade was canceled. The temperature in D.C. that morning dropped to minus-4 degrees (a record for the date), and climbed to only 7 degrees at noon.
Despite Reagan’s bitter-cold second inauguration, history shows that warmer inaugurations typically favor incoming Republican presidents. Even when we account for the frigid 1985 inauguration, the swearing-in ceremony has averaged almost 7 degrees warmer for Republican presidents than for Democratic ones. (Since 1937, 10 of the 21 inaugurations were for Republican administrations, so the sample is about equal.)
President Trump’s 2017 swearing-in marked the fourth-warmest on record in January. The noon temperature was 48 degrees with overcast skies. Very light showers briefly fell shortly after the swearing-in ceremony began.
Wettest and snowiest inaugurations
With far fewer people expected at Biden’s inauguration because of the coronavirus pandemic, rain and snow won’t be as much of a concern this year, as many will be watching the event indoors. Typically, there is about a 1-in-3 chance of measurable precipitation in the nation’s capital Jan. 20, and a 1-in-6 chance of precipitation occurring during the ceremony, according to the National Weather Service.
Odds of snow are smaller, with only a 10 percent chance of measurable amounts.
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 describes as a washout:
Two hundred thousand visitors came to Washington for the inauguration … It was a cold rainy day … Between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., 0.69 inches of rain fell. The ceremony began at 12:23 p.m. 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.
FDR’s 1937 inauguration was the only time more than an inch of rain fell on the date of the ceremony. Fortunately, subsequent presidential inaugurations were comparatively tame — until 1961 when a major snowstorm brought nearly eight inches of snow to the nation’s capital the night before President John F. Kennedy took office.
Though most of the snow fell Jan. 19, the 1961 inauguration holds the record for “most snow on the ground” among all January ceremonies.
As the sun’s glare reflected off the fresh blanket of snow at Kennedy’s inauguration, it proved too bright for Robert Frost to read a ceremonial poem.
Snowiest inauguration — not in January
Kennedy’s inauguration was memorable for its last-minute snow removal efforts along Pennsylvania Avenue and freezing temperatures, but it wasn’t officially the snowiest presidential inauguration. That distinction belongs to the inauguration of President William H. Taft on March 4, 1909, when 9.8 inches of snow fell the day of the ceremony. The powerful snowstorm, accompanied by blustery winds and whiteout conditions, brought Washington to a standstill and forced most of the ceremony indoors.
The 1909 Inauguration Day remains Washington’s second-snowiest March day on record. It was also one of several March inauguration days with bitter cold temperatures comparable with what we see in January today. The second-coldest inauguration (other than 1985) was the second swearing-in of President Ulysses S. Grant on March 4, 1873. The low temperature that morning was a frigid 4 degrees, and the high only reached 20 degrees.
In its historical summary, the National Weather Service 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 before official records began
Since official government weather records for Washington did not begin until 1871, the weather during presidential inaugurations before then is 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 U.S. Capitol without a hat or overcoat. He died just one month later after developing pneumonia.
The National Weather Service maintains a detailed list of anecdotal weather reports for all inaugurations dating back to that of George Washington. It’s worth a read, for history buffs and weather-enthusiasts alike.
Even though the 2021 presidential inauguration will have a different feel because of the pandemic, the weather at Biden’s swearing-in ceremony should still be traditionally cold and January-like — much like inaugurations of the past.
Below is a recap of key weather statistics discussed above:
January Inaugurations (1937-2017)
-4° in 1985
17° in 1985
56° in 1981
1.77″ of rain in 1937
1.2″ in 1945
March Inaugurations (1873-1933)
4° in 1873
20° in 1873
58° in 1885 and 1913
0.86″ of rain in 1889
9.8″ in 1909