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The contest of cold

In battle over Lower 48’s cold winter title, the numbers tell the story

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 1/24/18

When it’s winter, and it’s cold outside, it seems some in the news media just can’t resist the story of the handful of remote towns across the country that vie for the title of “Icebox of the …

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The contest of cold

In battle over Lower 48’s cold winter title, the numbers tell the story


When it’s winter, and it’s cold outside, it seems some in the news media just can’t resist the story of the handful of remote towns across the country that vie for the title of “Icebox of the Nation.”

It’s been a claim to fame for International Falls for years, which actually trademarked the title about a decade ago after agreeing to pay $2,000 to Fraser, Colo., to relinquish that town’s claim to the title.

But the trademark hasn’t quelled the debate and, a third town, Big Piney, Wyoming, has muddied the waters, claiming that it’s the coldest town in the country. In a story on the debate last week, National Public Radio interviewed representatives of Fraser, Big Piney, and International Falls, none of whom made a particularly compelling case. Bob Anderson, mayor up at the Falls, mentioned frozen turkey bowling, which was its usual hit at last weekend’s Icebox Days festival in the Falls, as if somehow that was compelling evidence of his town’s cold weather supremacy.

Of course, who knows what Bob really had to say to NPR. For most reporters, these are human interest features, preferably delivered with a heaping helping of quirky local color. Most of them couldn’t care less which town is colder… it’s more about entertaining readers or listeners about the weird things people way out in the sticks actually argue about.

Which town is coldest? To most folks, that’s like competing for bragging rights over which town smells the worst. I mean, is that actually a title anyone (in their right mind, at least) wants to win?

Of course, those of us who live in the North Country know it matters. Which is why I decided to truly get to the bottom of this by digging into the numbers. After all, this isn’t a question of how many human tongues are stuck to your town’s flagpole. We’ve got data that can settle this one once and for all, and I was more than happy to summon my inner nerd and wade through the snowdrifts.

So I tracked down the historical data thanks to Intellicast, and analyzed the numbers from multiple angles, and came to the obvious conclusion: It’s complicated!

That’s because it all depends on how you define “Icebox of the Nation.”

Come January, it isn’t even a contest. International Falls, with its daily mean temperature of 3.5 degrees F, blows both Fraser (14 degrees) and Big Piney (10 degrees) out of the running. For the six months of what we normally consider to be “winter” around here (Nov.-April), it’s closer, but International Falls still wins easily with a mean temperature of 18.75 degrees F, compared to 20.5 degrees for Big Piney and a relatively balmy 22.5 degrees for Fraser.

International Falls has the coldest overall record low of the three communities, at minus 55 degrees (Big Piney is second with minus 50, Fraser’s coldest is, yawn, minus 46). The Falls also has the coldest record lows for the months of January (-55), February (-48), March (-38), and April (-14).

Come summer, the situation is different. Both Big Piney (elevation 6,824) and Fraser (elevation 8,574) are high altitude locations where the air is thin and dry, and that helps their daytime heat dissipate at night. Big Piney, for example has the warmest daytime high temperatures of the three towns in the summer, but the coolest overnight lows. If you average the whole year, Big Piney is slightly colder than International Falls with an annual mean temperature of 36.0 degrees to 37.5 degrees in the Falls. Fraser checks in with a yearly mean of 36.5 degrees. That’s where the question becomes complicated.

To me, none of the communities qualifies as an “icebox” come summer. You can get frost in any of the towns during summer, but it’s more likely in the high elevation communities. Still, when you’re talking “icebox” you’re talking winter in my book, and on that front, the answer is clear— northeastern Minnesota has these western mountain towns beat, hands down.

And if we’re really talking about iceboxes, none of these three towns is really in competition with the truly coldest places in the Lower 48, such as Embarrass, or Tower at its former official weather station, where the mean Nov.-April temperature comes in at a frosty 16.1 degrees. Or try Warroad, with a six-month winter mean of 16.8 degrees, or Hallock, in far northwestern Minnesota, with a winter mean of 17.1 degrees. Even on an annual basis, Embarrass’s mean of 34.5 degrees, takes the cake.

The bottom line is that the winter deep freeze in our region isn’t an isolated experience, dependent on high elevation or some other geographic oddity that makes a particular place cold. Everywhere is cold in northern Minnesota in winter, because we’re located in the far north and in the center of the continent, where we receive the most frequent outbreaks of arctic air and the least frequent intrusions of milder maritime air masses.

While our winters aren’t what they used to be, they’re still tough to beat for cold weather.

On the question of who has the coldest winters in the Lower 48, it’s northern Minnesota, no doubt about it.


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