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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

EXTREME WEATHER

Prolonged polar plunge poses problems

Ten days below zero: Longest cold snap in 50 years

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 2/17/21

REGIONAL— For months, residents of the North Country were left wondering if Old Man Winter would ever arrive. But when he decided to pay the region a visit, beginning Feb. 5, it seemed for a …

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EXTREME WEATHER

Prolonged polar plunge poses problems

Ten days below zero: Longest cold snap in 50 years

Posted

REGIONAL— For months, residents of the North Country were left wondering if Old Man Winter would ever arrive. But when he decided to pay the region a visit, beginning Feb. 5, it seemed for a time he’d never leave, and that’s left some homeowners and communities struggling to keep their water flowing.
“This is called the other shoe dropping,” said state Climatologist Pete Boulay this week as a persistent and bitterly cold air mass finally relented slightly on Monday, when the temperature reached one above zero, for the first time in ten days. It was the longest streak of continuous subzero temperatures to hit the North Country since 1971, according to Boulay. That is based on temperatures recorded at International Falls, which has the longest continuous temperature records in the region. Automated recording stations at several locations in northern St. Louis County reached one above zero between 2 and 3 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 15, thanks in part to brilliant sunshine and calm winds. The last above zero reading at those same stations was recorded in the late afternoon of Friday, Feb. 5.
Despite the extraordinary length of the cold wave, few places in northeastern Minnesota set record lows. One place that did was Snowbank Lake, at the end of the Fernberg Road, east of Ely, where an active and automated weather station dipped to minus-50 degrees on Saturday morning, Feb. 13. If confirmed, that would set a new state daily record for Feb. 13, but it was one of relatively few records set during the cold snap.
Forties below zero were pretty commonplace on several nights around the region in traditional cold spots, but in many cases, that’s not cold enough to set daily records in the North Country. Those readings all reflect air temperatures— wind chills, in most cases, made it feel even colder.
The winds, which were persistent during most of the cold snap, actually helped keep overnight lows slightly warmer, noted Boulay, who said calm, clear nights offer the best opportunity to reach record-setting extremes. Cold air is denser and without the wind to keep it mixed, it naturally drains into low lying areas. Put a thermometer in one of those low spots, and you can reach some awe-inspiring temperatures.
The extended bitter cold, combined with relatively limited snow cover, created challenges for some public utilities in the area. In Winton, a frozen water main burst, leaving the town of just over 100 residents. without any water. In Ely, city officials were warning residents they may want to run their water to keep it from freezing. According to the Ely Utilities Commission, the generally accepted advice to prevent water line freeze up is to run a “pencil-width” stream of water from a faucet. And just because the weather has since warmed to more seasonal levels, the threat of water line freeze up is now likely to be a constant for at least the next couple months. “The chance of freeze up will be gone when the ice is off the local lakes in the spring,” said Ely Clerk-Treasurer Harold Langowski.
As a service to customers within the Ely city limits, the EUC will thaw private frozen water lines when time is available. “Signing of our liability release form is required from the property owner and tenant, if it is a rental property, prior to city of Ely personnel thawing the line,” Langowski said.
To schedule a water pipe thawing, call the utility billing office at 218-365-5900 during regular business hours Monday-Friday.  For after-hours emergency service call 1-800-890-8713.
An extraordinary stretch
While multi-day periods of continuous below zero readings are hardly unusual in the North Country, this most recent stretch was exceptional for its duration, according to Boulay, even for the self-proclaimed Icebox of the Nation.
“The last time they went eight days in the Falls was in 1979,” said Boulay. “The last time they had a ten-day stretch was in 1971.” That’s half a century ago. The area did experience an eight-to-nine day stretch (depending on the reporting station) of subzero readings back in 1996, which culminated in the new state record of minus 60, set in Tower on Feb. 2.
There are two other truly epic stretches in the record books in the Falls, noted Boulay. In 1912, residents of the border city endured 14 days with continuous subzero temperatures and went 13 days in 1924. That would leave this month’s stretch tied for the top three cold snaps, at least in duration.
There is one aspect of this latest cold snap that is both noteworthy and record-setting, notes Boulay. “It’s the latest that any of these streaks went into February,” said Boulay. The previous latest end of an extended cold snap was Feb. 12. By mid-to-late February, the nights are shorter and the days are longer, and that makes it tougher to sustain subzero temperatures, particularly on sunny days. The area’s forests, dominated by dark pines, spruce, and fir, also help to warm the air on sunny afternoons, a phenomenon meteorologists refer to as “the pine tree effect.” While February is certainly a winter month in the North Country, the return of the sun, which is now as high as it is on Oct. 20, begins to make a considerable difference in daytime temperatures.
This extended cold snap could well put February 2021 in the books as one of the coldest months of February on record, and it comes on the heels of a December-thru-January period that was record-setting for warmth. Which just goes to show that in Minnesota, if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute and… you know the rest.

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