Minnesota’s Coldest December Ever Will Chill You to Your Core

A man shoveling sidewalk in the morning
© Anita Schneider/iStock via Getty Images

Written by Joyce Nash

Published: December 11, 2023

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Winters in Minnesota are not for the faint of heart. Snow can begin falling as early as October and snowfall can continue through April. December is one of the coldest months in the state, with an average low temperature of 12 degrees Fahrenheit and an average snowfall of 12 inches. The average high temperature for December in Minnesota is a bone-chilling 27 degrees! But what about the state’s coldest December? Keep reading to learn all about the coldest December on record and how it impacted the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Heavy snow in Minnesota

December and January are typically the snowiest months in Minnesota.

©Plume Photography/Shutterstock.com

Minnesota’s Coldest December

The winter of 1996-1997 brought record-breaking low temperatures and snowfall to Minnesota. December 1996 was the state’s coldest December ever with an average temperature of -0.8 degrees. The week before Christmas was among the coldest weeks in Minnesota history, with an average temperature of -17 degrees. Later that winter, on February 2, 1997, the state recorded a low temperature of -60 degrees, its lowest ever!

Four blizzards hit Minnesota in December 1996, bringing over 100 inches of snow to some areas. Even areas that weren’t impacted by blizzard conditions still saw 10-30 inches of snow that month, which is well above the state’s average

Minneapolis Skyline with Snow - Minnesota's warmest winter

December 1996 is the only December on record in Minnesota with an average, statewide temperature of less than zero degrees Fahrenheit.

©Roger Siljander/Shutterstock.com

The Wintry Impact

Intensely cold temperatures and heavy snowfall took their toll in December 1996 and the months that followed. Farmers in Minnesota struggled to feed their livestock due to frozen water pumps and enormous snow drifts. Thousands of livestock animals died as a result of the frigid conditions.

During the winter of 1996-1997, residents across Minnesota suffered from widespread power outages and road closures. Schools and businesses were closed for days, and hundreds of sheds and outbuildings collapsed under the weight of the accumulating snow and ice. 

The conditions were so dangerous that 40 counties in Minnesota were declared disaster areas. In Detroit Lakes, the Lakes Crisis Center received multiple calls from residents with frozen water lines or who needed assistance paying for propane. As the stressors of the season compounded, the organization received over a dozen calls in one week from people who needed help with restraining orders.

Historic Springtime Floods

Record-breaking floods in the spring of 1997 followed the record-breaking snowfall of the winter months. As the snow melted, the water levels in the Minnesota River and Red River rose to dangerous levels. Cities along these rivers were braced for incoming floods, but the waters rose quickly, causing nearly 70,000 people to evacuate.

In the Fargo-Moorhead area, the Red River rose nearly 40 feet in April 1997, leading to devastating floods in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. The floods impacted over 2,200 square miles throughout Minnesota and North Dakota, leading to over $4 billion in damages.

Red River of the North

In the spring of 1997, the Red River reached an average width of 7-10 miles.

©Tony Webster / CC BY-SA 2.0 – Original / License

Maintaining Safe Water

As Minnesotans were reeling from back-to-back blizzards followed by quickly rising floodwaters, people throughout the state mobilized to make sure residents would have access to safe drinking water. Utility crews, city workers, and volunteers came together, often working around the clock, to construct dikes and lay sandbags. 

In April 1997, East Grand Forks was flooded under nearly 20 inches of water as crews worked to maintain the city’s water system. Despite their best efforts, the system could not maintain water pressure due to the high number of leaks and failures at individual homes. However, workers and volunteers were able to keep the water treatment plant in East Grand Forks free from flooding.

As the floodwaters receded, residents had to contend with debris, mud, and water-damaged homes. Clean-up efforts in some areas lasted for months and even years. Although residents were grappling with hardships and personal losses, Minnesotans came together to support each other through the state’s coldest December and the historic floods that followed.

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About the Author

Joyce Nash is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering travel and geography. She has almost a decade of writing experience. Her background ranges from journalism to farm animal rescues and spans the East Coast to the West. She is based in North Carolina, and in her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, and spending time with her husband and two cats.

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