As if 2021 didn’t serve up enough interesting weather in Minnesota — smoky air, a drought and tornadoes in December — 2022 is off to a cold start.
So far this month, the temperature has averaged 8.6 degrees Fahrenheit at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That’s below the January average of 13.9 degrees.
January in Minnesota is always cold. That’s often the only thing besides Prince people from the coasts know about our state, and lots of Minnesotans pride themselves on fortitude in the face of that cold with feats like jumping in frozen lakes and wearing shorts when they shouldn’t.
Minnesotans aren’t alone, though. Plenty of other states in this vast country experience their share of cold.
So how does Minnesota stack up?
The coldest average
There are a lot of ways to look at this question. One measure of coldness is the mean temperature over time: an average of all the temperature readings across the state over time.
By this metric, Minnesota is cold, but not the coldest state. The state’s average annual recorded temperature between 1901 and 2000, a time period that allows easy comparison with other states, was is 40.1 degrees Fahrenheit. That puts Minnesota tied for second in the lower 48, along with Maine. North Dakota is the coldest in the contiguous U.S., at 39.7 degrees on average. Alaska’s data only go back to 1925, but it undeniably ranks coldest among all U.S. states, at an annual average of 26 degrees between 1925 and 2000.
Following Minnesota are Wyoming, Montana, Vermont and Wisconsin.
The warmest state in the lower 48, on average, is Florida, with an average annual temperature of 70.1 degrees (NOAA’s data tool does not include equivalent data for Hawaii).
That’s no surprise. In general, the coldest states can be found the further north you go, said Karin Gleason, a meteorologist with NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. That’s because the closer you get to the North Pole, the less direct the sun’s rays. That’s why it’s generally warmer near the equator and colder near the pole.
But other factors play in, too. Places with more altitude tend to be cooler, and also places where winter weather is influenced by cold, dry arctic air masses from Canada. That’s why Minnesota and its neighbors are among the coldest states.
Minnesota may not be the coldest place in the U.S., on average. But it contains some of the coldest places in the U.S., particularly in the lower 48.
Various cities in Minnesota and around the country like to call themselves the “Icebox of the Nation,” a title that denotes their superiority in frigid extremes. Lawsuits have even been filed to defend the title.
International Falls does have some legitimate claim to being the “Icebox of the Nation”, though, said Kenneth Blumenfeld, senior climatologist in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource’s Minnesota State Climate Office. Specifically, of the first-order climatological stations — these are weather stations, often at major airports, with high-tech equipment — it often has the lowest temperature readings in the lower 48.
“Of the first order stations, I’m pretty sure International Falls has the lowest annual temperature, the lowest winter temperature, most days below zero against all the other ones, at least in the lower 48,” he said. “No chance that it’s going to compete against Fairbanks.”
Counting all weather observations — not just those from first-order stations – Norris Camp, in Lake of the Woods County, Embarrass and parts near Ely are often colder.
Even colder, at times, than parts of North Dakota. How do these places get colder than our neighbor to the west, where, as Blumenfeld put it, winds scream across the prairie out of the Arctic tundra?
Actually, it’s because they’re not as flat. Air is a fluid, and cold air is dense compared to warm air. So cold air will sink in low spots.
“The topography of northern Minnesota is not as flat as what you have in North Dakota, and it has these kind of depressions. It’s in some of those depressions that the coldest air will pool,” Blumenfeld said.
Illustrative of how much topography can play a role is how Embarrass hasn’t been recording as many record colds as it once was.
“It’s still very cold but isn’t usually the lowest temperature or among the couple lowest temperatures in the country,” Blumenfeld said. That’s because the observation station moved to a slightly higher elevation where the cold doesn’t sink in as much.
But how do Minnesota’s extremes stack up to other states? Close, but not quite the coldest.
The coldest temperature ever recorded in Minnesota was -60 degrees, in Tower, in 1996. With that record, Minnesota is tied with North Dakota and Idaho for fifth lowest-ever recorded temperature. Alaska once recorded -80 degrees in Prospect Creek Camp, north of Fairbanks, and Montana, -70 degrees at Rogers Pass, in the mountains north of Helena. Wyoming recorded -66 in Yellowstone National Park and Colorado recorded -60 degrees in Maybell, in the state’s northwest corner.