The Coldest Day in Minnesota History


While the term “Polar Vortex” hasn’t been tossed around yet, Minnesota has been in a deep freeze this week. Cold temperatures and dangerous windchills have prompted school closings and there is no activity on my street with the exception of the mailman who races quickly past each day, bundled up in heavy boots, ski pants and face mask. Contrary to popular belief, until last year it was not terribly common for schools to close here due to extreme temperatures, in fact, I don’t recall many “snow days” growing up at all.

Last year’s Polar Vortex changed things significantly and school closings were happening daily. While working parents  struggled to find childcare for their kids, my grandmother lamented over “kids today.” A lot has changed since she was young. In her day, there were no buses to take them to school – they walked, in dresses no less. And while it wasn’t uphill both ways, she did tell me a tale that stopped me in my tracks. During one especially grueling walk on a frigid winter day, her teacher passed her and her sisters on the way to school – they watched in disbelief as he kept driving. He later apologized to their mother for not picking the girls up but said he worried it would be colder for them riding in his open-air car than walking to school. Open-air car? In Minnesota? My grandmother was born in 1919, it’s hard to imagine the differences between surviving Minnesota winters then and now. It’s even harder to imagine if you look back further to native people and settlers living even more exposed to the elements.

As I turned up my space heater, I wondered: What was the coldest day in Minnesota’s history? Minnesota’s location in the northern plains earns us a reputation of climate extremes and it has kept records for nearly two centuries, since 1819 when Fort Snelling was established. In 1871, the first official government observations were taking place in the Twin Cities and that extended to most of the state by the early 20th century.

black and white photograph of a man taking weather readings from the roof of the Minneapolis post office
Weather observations being taken in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1890. (Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society)

But even with all that data, it can be tricky to determine the coldest day in Minnesota history because the windchill formula was modernized in 2001. Possibly the coldest in the Twin Cities was January 22, 1936 when the windchill was measured at -63. What does that mean? It means that the temperature was -34 with winds of 15 mph. The Twin Cities has it lucky when compared to Northern Minnesota. On January 9 and 10 in 1982, they measured temperatures of -30 with winds around 40 mph – that means a -71 windchill. And our friends near Tower, Minnesota experienced an all-time low of -61 on February 2, 1996.

Those are some cold temperatures. It makes me glad that there have been advancements made in technology for keeping us warm – and especially thankful for enclosed cars with heated car seats.

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By Heidi Van Heel
Heidi Van Heel

Heidi Van Heel

Writer, freelancer, and believer in magic living in Minneapolis. In my free time, I love reading, exploring the great outdoors, and experimenting in the kitchen.

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