Minnesota winters are unpredictable. That’s what either makes the state great or a major bummer — depending on whom you ask.
The land of 10,000 (frozen) lakes has a nationwide reputation for brutal, relentless winter months, which is why when Tia Smythe moved to Minnesota from Chicago 15 years ago, she was expecting worse.
Her curiosity spiked when she was questioned on her decision to move here, especially when a Bostonian friend asked how she “survived.”
“You guys seem to get way more snow than we do,” Smythe recalled telling her friend. “I don’t know why you’re so freaked out about Minnesota winters.”
Does Minnesota actually have the worst winters? Smythe waded through websites and decided to turn to Curious Minnesota, our community-driven reporting project fueled by questions from readers, when she couldn’t find a definitive answer.
What does “worst” actually mean? Again, it depends on who you ask. For kids excited to hit the sledding hills, “worst” means a balmy 50-degree day with no snowfall. On the other hand, there are many Minnesota adults who longingly daydream for exactly that.
Minnesota winters, which many experts say encompasses late November to late March, are truly unpredictable. In April 2018, the Twin Cities alone received a record 26 inches of snowfall for the month. That said, Minnesota does not receive the most snowfall on average, even within the continental United States. When it comes to individual cities, places like Blue Canyon, Calif., and Mount Washington, N.H., received, in some cases, nearly three times the amount of average snowfall during the winter months than that of snowy Minnesota cities like International Falls.
However, Minnesota is truly cold in comparison to other states. Minnesota had the second-coldest temperatures from December to February between 1971 and 2000, ringing in at a mere 12 degree average. According to meteorologist Paul Douglas, if you look at average winter temperatures over an entire state, Alaska appears to be the coldest state in the country, followed by North Dakota and then Minnesota.
“We are, on paper, in theory, the third coldest state in the U.S.A., if the measure of ‘cold’ is winter temperatures, averaged over an entire state,” Douglas said via email.
Pete Boulay, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources climatologist, said he loves Minnesota weather for its unpredictability. For him, the average winter season temperature for a city such as San Diego (low 70s) is “extremely boring.”
Some Minnesotans are working to brand the state’s cold and snow as something to attract people here. Entrepreneur Eric Dayton, who recently debuted a new Askov Finlayson parka line, said winter deserves celebration. He helped create the Great Northern, a festival that features outdoor activities like pond hockey and the Loppet, to get people outside. In recent years, his clothing company’s “North” branded hats have become a staple for winter-loving Minnesotans.
“Unfortunately, I think a lot of people dread the winter and think of it as something to be endured,” Dayton said. “We would love to have more people view it as a time to be celebrated.”
Dayton said he hopes to transform the way many people think about winter, especially with climate change shortening the winter months. People need to appreciate the cold season, Dayton argues, because “we could very well lose it.”
So determining whether Minnesota is the “worst” winter state requires perspective. For someone like Douglas, the question itself is surprising.
“In nearly 40 years of tracking Minnesota weather this is the first time this question has been posed to me,” he said.
No matter the answer, the state will always be known for extreme winter seasons. Some even say that Minnesota has a reputation to uphold.
“For better or worse, this is the stigma of the state,” Boulay said.
Michelle Griffith (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.
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