An extremely strong high-pressure system started making its way into the region, pulling harsh, cold, polar air in with it. In the meantime, a strong low pressure system was moving through areas farther south along a cold front, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico and up into the Northeast. The cold front caused temperatures to drop, so that on the evening of January 30th, temperatures for Nashville, Tennessee, were only at 18 degrees Fahrenheit (-8 degrees Celsius). However, temperatures just above the surface at 5,000 feet were actually above freezing, registering at 48 degrees Fahrenheit (9 degrees Celsius). This was the perfect set up for the development and occurrence of freezing rain and sleet.
In Bowling Green, almost 3 inches of snow and sleet had covered the city by morning of the 31st, causing roads to become almost impassible. By noon, the snow had turned to rain due to the above freezing warmer air aloft, however on the surface temperatures had only risen to 28 degrees Fahrenheit. This caused the rain to freeze upon impact, worsening the traffic situation. Bulldozers were called out to help the effort and scrape the ice, with little effect.
Then a turn for the worse occurred yet again. By the next morning, on February 1, temperatures started dropping dramatically. Before the day was over a low of -1 degrees Fahrenheit had been recorded, and another 7 inches of snow had fallen. Travel by this point was virtually impossible, causing major delays for airlines, busses, and trains throughout the state. Damage was reported throughout the region as tree limbs cracked and fell onto power lines due to the dense ice packed onto them.
The cold only continued. At 4:45 a.m. February 2, Bowling Green recorded a temperature of -20 degrees Fahrenheit, the coldest official temperature ever recorded in February up to that time. The precipitation continued as well, leaving behind 9 inches of snow and sleet on the ground in Southern Kentucky. Crews were working around the clock to restore both power and phone lines. Water pipes burst under the extreme cold, transportation remained halted, temperatures remained unbearable, and ten days later the area had yet to recover from the ice and the snow.
The Great Ice Storm of 1951, as it came to be known, covered the south in a linear path of ice from Louisiana to Ohio. Heaviest accumulations fell in a line from Memphis to Nashville, Tennessee and northeastward into Lexington, KY. It was the costliest winter on record for the time, causing an estimated $100 million in damage. The impact on forest, livestock, crops and fruit trees was responsible for $64 million of that total. It is estimated that 25 people lost their lives across the areas affected by the storm, and another 500 were injured.