Words on Weather & Climate — May 20, 2010

Cold Spots


Meteorologist Craig James, new Squire columnist

It was a very cold start to the month of May in much of the western part of the country. Subzero low temperatures were recorded as late as the morning of May 7, making this the latest date for such cold temperatures in at least a decade. In fact, a place called Peter Sink, Utah, dropped to 15 below zero on May 7, which tied the record for the coldest temperature ever recorded in May in the United States.

Peter Sink is not a town. It is just a place located east of Logan, Utah. According to Wikipedia, “Peter Sink is located 8,100 feet (2,500 m) above sea level, in the Bear River Mountains east of Logan. Due to temperature inversions that trap cold nocturnal air, it routinely produces the coldest temperatures in the state. Even in the summer, the bottom of the sinkhole rarely goes four consecutive days without freezing. It is so cold near the bottom of the hole that trees are unable to grow.”

Once the sun sets on clear calm nights, the dry air quickly radiates energy to space and cold air pools in the basin. Back in February of this year, the temperature fell 32 degrees in just 15 minutes and a total of 78 degrees, from 32 above zero to 46 below zero, in four-and-a-half hours.

On February 1, 1985, a temperature of -69.3°F (-56°C) was recorded there, the lowest recorded temperature in Utah, and the second coldest temperature ever recorded in the 48 contiguous states. The coldest was -70°F at Rogers Pass in Montana. The coldest in the entire U.S. was -80°F at Prospect Creek Camp, Alaska in 1971.

There are other spots similar to, although not as extreme as, Peter Sink. There is a place near Penn State University, where I went to school, called the Barrens. The Barrens is just four miles west of the main campus located in State College, Pa. The daytime temperature is usually the same as in State College, but the nighttime temperature can often be 30 degrees colder.

In the 1800s, the mining of iron ore plus widespread fires deforested the area. Many remaining trees in the Barrens were cut a second and third time to add to the problem. Low temperatures now fall well below freezing every month of the year, so all that remains are a few pine and scrub oak trees. I guess this is real climate change caused by humans, but it of course has nothing to do with carbon dioxide.

I don’t know of any places such as these two in Michigan, but the weather observation site near Vanderbilt, which is located near I-75 north of Gaylord, comes close. The average growing season is only 78 days, with the shortest on record of just 30 days. You could hardly grow potatoes there.

I imagine there are even colder places in the Upper Peninsula, but thermometers haven’t been placed there to record them. On January 19, 1994, the town of Amasa, southwest of Marquette, may have recorded the state’s lowest temperature of -52°F. There is still some debate as to whether this low is official or if the -51°F at Vanderbilt in 1934 is still the state’s lowest temperature. I guess the government is in no rush to make a decision.

Craig James has been retired since July 1, 2008, after 40 years of broadcasting television weather. He was chief meteorologist at WZZM-TV for 12 years and chief meteorologist at WOOD-TV for 24 years. He is a graduate of Penn State University, where he received a Centennial Fellowship Award. He was also honored as a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.

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