Unusually frigid weather brought deadly cold to Minnesota this year, but it's turned out to be far from the deadliest ­winter the state has seen.

In fact, it wasn't even as deadly as last year, when 41 people died despite much milder average temperatures.

According to the state Department of Health, exposure to the cold was a factor in at least 26 deaths from Dec. 1, 2013, through the end of February. That's right about average for the past five years. The winter of 2011-12 saw the fewest deaths, with 13. There were 24 deaths in 2010-11 and 31 in 2009-10.

Neither doctors, medical examiners' offices who perform autopsies, law enforcement personnel nor homeless advocates had any firm idea why the numbers were lower this year than in previous milder winters.

Some speculated that there was far more publicity about the polar fronts that hit the state and the dangers they posed, or perhaps, the subzero conditions made ice on lakes and rivers safer, so fewer people died. The Department of Health includes people who died after falling through the ice as cold-related deaths.

This winter, many homeless shelters kept their doors open all day, as well as all night during the worst subzero temperatures. There's no doubt that saved lives, said Dominick Bouza, who works with the homeless at the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center in Minneapolis.

Alcohol and cold weather is always a dangerous combination, said many experts, including Dr. Nathaniel Scott of Hennepin County Medical Center. In almost half of this year's cold-related deaths, alcohol intoxication, ethanol intoxication or drug addiction was a factor.

"What we think primarily happens is alcohol impairs decisionmaking," Scott said. "People put themselves in situations where they're less likely to recognize they're cold."

Scott noted he treated more people this year for frostbite than in previous years.

In one sense, temperatures in the 20s and 30s can be as deadly — sometimes more so — than similar temperatures below zero, he said. The homeless often drink outdoors, and if a person starts around noon when the temperature is in the 30s, he or she might not recognize danger signs when the temperature drops later in the day.

Bouza said that over the past 14 or 15 years, usually one homeless person dies from exposure each year in the Twin Cities. No such deaths took place this winter, he said.

Some people struggling with addiction or mental illness choose to stay outside even when temperatures drop below zero, Bouza said.

"I've made contact with people sleeping under 17 blankets who have made the choice to stay outside when it's 20 below," he said, noting that some simply don't want to ­follow the rules in shelters, such as no drinking or fighting.

High-profile cases

The cold-related deaths this winter included three men — best friends since kindergarten — from the Winona area who left a bar in the early morning of Jan. 5 with a woman they had just met. The woman's SUV missed a curve and plunged into the Mississippi River. All four had been drinking. The official cause of death was drowning, with cold exposure a secondary factor.

Andrea C. Marker, 32, was found the afternoon of Jan. 7, just steps from the front door of the home in Lakeville that she shared with her parents and sister. She had been drinking.

Jacob W. Anderson, 19, a University of Minnesota freshman from Orono, was found Dec. 15 along the Mississippi River, just east of the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis. An autopsy determined that he died of hypothermia.

A 6-year-old girl from Bemidji, who was found Feb. 27 in the entry of an apartment building, was determined to have died of hypothermia.

Nineteen others also were on the Health Department's list with causes of death including hypothermia, hypothermia complicated by acute alcohol intoxication and hypothermia complicating decreased mobility from a fall. The list, which doesn't include names, noted that one person died after jumping into Lake Superior in Duluth and another from a heart attack complicated by "mixed drug toxicity."

The death of Lesean M. Taylor of St. Paul wasn't counted in the Health Department data because it happened in March. Her frozen body was found March 3 by a garbage truck driver near some dumpsters in Fridley.