The only thing worse than being the coldest place in Minnesota is being second-coldest.
The air hurts our faces and flash-freezes our nostrils and hangs icicles in our eyelashes. And insult to injury, this probably isn’t even the coldest day any Minnesotan has ever braved.
That would be Feb. 2, 1996, when the Iron Range towns of Tower and Embarrass showed the rest of us how to go negative.
Tower won the race to the bottom, officially shattering all records as morning dawned bright and terrible and 60 degrees below zero.
In the subzero pandemonium, news crews and weather geeks descended on the Iron Range. Cold-weather campers pitched tents and watched frost creep up their sleeping bags. Somebody hammered nails into boards with a banana, because that is the sort of thing you can do when you’re colder than Mars and Antarctica and the slopes of Mount Everest.
Eight miles down the road, the mercury was falling fast in Embarrass. Nestled deep in a valley of the Laurentian Divide, on the banks of the chilly Embarrass River, the town of 600 regularly records the coldest weather in the state. But the only thermometer that mattered that morning was the one in the official National Weather Service observation station in Roland Fowler’s backyard.
And that morning, it was so cold that the mercury in the thermometer separated, ruining the reading.
Embarrass — town motto, “The Cold Spot” — had missed its shot at coldest spot.
“We had four thermometers, and none of them was above 62 below,” Fowler reminisced to the Star Tribune last year, as he was preparing to retire after 30 years as a faithful community weather watcher. “I had a Taylor thermometer at the house that showed 64 below. We sent it to Taylor’s headquarters to be calibrated, and they said it was right on the mark.”
In Tower, a local bank gave out commemorative 60-below thermometers. In the Twin Cities, they sold “I Survived” T-shirts.
Embarrass isn’t likely to get another crack at the record this week. The bitterest cold and the most inhumane windchills are whipping through the Red River Valley on the western side of the state.
The forecast for Embarrass looks barely colder than the Twin Cities today. Which means Embarrass is very, very cold.
How cold? We’ll have to wait for Jack La Mar to check his readings.
La Mar took over from Fowler last year as the state’s most-observed weather observer. The temperature readings are digital these days, and he can check them from the comfort of his kitchen. But like hundreds of other volunteer observers around the state, he still treks outside in all weather to check for rain or snowfall.
“This time of year, a lot of people are interested in what we’re doing,” said La Mar, a lifelong “weather nerd” who put his name on a list five years ago, hoping for a chance to put his interest in climatology and citizen science to use.
His neighbors still remember the near-miss of ’96.
“I was just reminded of that the other day. I ran across a neighbor [who said] ‘Well, ya know, that really wasn’t Tower,’” La Mar said. “There’s a little bit of friendly competition.”
The question of coldest city is a conversational third rail in Minnesota’s Cooperative Weather Observer Program, joked Steve Gohde, observing program leader for the National Weather Service in Duluth. He oversees 70 stations across northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. Some sites have been collecting weather observations for a century or more.
Hour by hour, the observations come in from his stations. Subzero temperatures. Breathtaking windchill.
“Even if you have the right clothes on, you have to have every piece of skin covered,” Gohde said. “You go outside and you get that little gasp reflex. … It takes very little time for things to get deadly.”
But the worse the weather, the happier the weather watchers.
“A lot of these folks are like, ‘Bring it on,’ ” Gohde said.
As the Cold Spot grew colder, Jack La Mar wouldn’t trade places with anyone.
“I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” he said. You just have to meet bad weather with smart choices.
“I have to think ahead. ‘Gee, do I have my choppers in the trunk? Do I have my fur-lined hat in the back seat? I don’t want to break down. If I do, I could lose digits. I think anybody who lives in Minnesota has put a candy bar or a candle in the trunk. That’s just what we do to be safe.”