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Ice and fire: extremes grip North America

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 7:16 PM GMT on January 16, 2009

The lowest temperature ever recorded in the state of Maine occurred this morning, according to preliminary data from the National Weather Service. The temperature at Big Black River in northern Maine on the Canadian border bottomed out at -50F, besting the old record of -48°F. Here's the scoop from NWS:

At 0730 am EST this morning a USGS gage at Big Black River recorded a low temperature of -50F. This exceeds the current statewide record low temperature of -48F set on January 19th...1925 at Van Buren. This report is considered unofficial until a review of the equipment and data by the state climate extremes committee as to the validity of this report. If the committee ascertains that this is indeed a valid report...a separate public information statement will be issued at that time.

Figure 1. Temperature trace from the Big Black River, Maine USGS river gauge station, ending January 16, 2009. A record minimum of -50°F (-45.3°C) occurred. Image credit: USGS.

Figure 2. Minimum temperatures this morning for Maine. Image credit: National Weather Service, Caribou, Maine.

All-time state records are difficult to break. The last time a state record low was set was January 5, 1999, when Congerville, Illinois recorded -36°F. Only one state record high temperature has been set in the past the decade--the 120°F temperature measured in Usta, South Dakota on July 15, 2006.

This week's North American cold spell has been a notable one, with daily minimum temperature records falling in seventeen states, Sunday through Friday. A record low for the month of January was set Friday morning in Caribou, Maine, which recorded -37°F. This is the second coldest temperature ever recorded in Caribou, next to the -41°F recorded on February 1, 1962. Mason City, Iowa had it's lowest January temperature on record Friday morning, -31°F, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had its all-time lowest temperature for any month Thursday morning, a frigid -29°F. Bismark, North Dakota had its second coldest temperature ever, -44°F, on Thursday morning. This was only 1° from the all time low of -45° on January 13, 1916 and again on February 16, 1936. Bismark is also on pace for their snowiest season on record (61.2" so far).

Record heat in Alaska and California
The temperature swings this week in Alaska have been astounding. At Nenana, in central Alaska, the high was -42°F on Monday, with a low of -52°F. On Thursday morning, the temperature shot up 106°F from Monday, topping out at a positively tropical 54°F--the warmest January temperature ever measured in Nenana. Several other Alaska stations also set record highs for the month of January this week. Record highs for the month of January were also set at four California airports:

San Jose 75°F January 12
Sacramento 70°F January 12
San Francisco 72°F January 13
Red Bluff 78°F January 13, 15, 16

More record highs than lows have been set at the 381 major airports across the U.S. so far this week, through Friday. You can look up all the records at the National Climatic Data Center's excellent U.S. Records web site. Records for this week:

Jan 16
9 maximum high temperature records (CA, OR, WA, WY)
20 minimum low temperature records (GA, IA, IL, IN, MI, ME, MN, NH, PA, VT, WI)

Jan 15
11 maximum high temperature records (CA, WA, NV)
11 minimum low temperature records (IA, ND, IN, ME, NE, NY, SD)

Jan 14
14 maximum high temperature records (AK, CA, OR, NV)
8 minimum low temperature records (IA, MI, MN, ND, TX)

Jan 13:
13 maximum high temperature records (CA, OR, AK, FL)
9 minimum low temperature records (IA, MI, MN, ND)

Jan 12:
9 maximum high temperature records (CA, OR, WA)
2 minimum low temperature records (AK, ND)

Jan 11:
7 maximum high temperature records (CA, OR, WA)
1 minimum low temperature record (CA)

What's causing all this wild weather?
As usual, a sharp kink in the jet stream is responsible for the wild weather we're having. A ridge of high pressure over Alaska is forcing the jet to bow northwards into northern Alaska, allowing warm air from the Hawaii area to stream northwards over the region. Whenever the jet contorts into such a pattern, there must be a return flow of cold air from the pole that develops. That is occurring over the eastern half of the U.S., bringing us our Arctic air blast. The -17°F at my house in Michigan yesterday morning was the coldest it's been since 1994, brrr!

Jeff Masters
Icy Ferns
Icy Ferns
Ice outside my window
January Sauna
January Sauna
Sunny bright at 12:30 P.M. and minus 7 degrees F. Some geese and mallards "enjoy" a January sauna in East Dundee, IL. The Fox River is about 38 degrees right now ... relatively warm when compared with today's frigid air temperature.
Very Cold Morning
Very Cold Morning
-18C or -1F in Burlington, ON ... and a beautiful sun-rise too!

Climate Change

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.