The United States is the third largest nation in the world in terms of land mass, trailing only Russia and Canada. With such a vast amount of real estate, the U.S. features a wide variety of climates within its borders.
Florida is the warmest of the U.S. states on average each year, with Hawaii coming in second. That may be a bit surprising, as many would expect Hawaii to take the top spot. While Hawaii does have the warmest winter of any U.S. state, the Pacific Ocean provides a breeze that helps moderate the summer temperatures in the Aloha State. Meanwhile, the summer temperature readings in Florida soar, which allows Florida to take the prize as the nation’s warmest state.
While that may be mildly surprising, the coldest U.S. state is likely no surprise. Alaska takes that title with ease.
History of Alaska
The United States purchased the territory that would become the state of Alaska from Russia in 1867. The total cost was $7.2 million, which worked out to less than two cents an acre! Alaska would remain a U.S. territory until it was finally admitted to the Union as the 49th state on January 3, 1959.
Size and Location of Alaska
Alaska is the largest U.S. state in terms of land area, and it’s not even close. At 570,641 square miles, Alaska is bigger than the next three largest states combined (Texas, California, and Montana).
Alaska is located on the extreme northwest corner of the North American continent. It is over 2,000 miles from the next closest state in the U.S., Washington State. Meanwhile, Alaska is a mere 55 miles away from Russia, separated by the Bering Strait. The state’s only land border is shared with Canada and stretches over 1,500 miles.
Alaska is technically located in both the Western and Eastern Hemispheres. The 180th meridian passes through Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, meaning the westernmost part of the state is actually in the Eastern Hemisphere.
Alaska’s northern third lies within the Arctic Circle, beginning about 140 miles north of Fairbanks (or about 200 miles by road).
Alaska’s Temperature Range
Given its sheer size, the temperatures throughout Alaska can vary widely. While it is the coldest state in the U.S., there are some parts of the state that, by comparison, really aren’t all that cold.
Sitka, for example, features a rather temperate climate. The city never has a month when the average high temperature is below freezing. In January, Sitka’s coldest month, the average high temperature is 37°F. In August, the average high is a delightful 62°F.
During the summer months, it’s common for locations in Alaska’s interior to climb above 80°F. The hottest temperature ever recorded in Alaska hit triple digits. Fort Yukon registered 100°F on June 27, 1915, though some experts question the reliability of this measurement. However, no one questions the second-hottest Alaska temperature on record. Richardson, Alaska, registered 98°F on June 15, 1969. Obviously, Alaska is not all cold all the time. But when the Alaskan chill is on, it is no joke.
The coldest location in Alaska is Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow). Located in the Arctic Circle, it is the most northern city in the United States.
From December to March, the average high temperature in Utqiagvik is below 0°F. The two months that bookend this brutal cold stretch, November and April, feature average highs in the single digits. The average high temperature in Utqiagvik is in the single digits or colder for six months out of the year. The warmest month for Utqiagvik is July, with an average high of 47°F.
Until recently, the only way to reach Utqiagvik was by plane or boat (which is only possible during warmer months when the water is not frozen). There are no paved roads because Utqiagvik sits on a thick layer of permafrost. The expense of shipping goods to Utqiagvik made the cost of living there extraordinarily expensive. In an effort to lower that cost, a system of snow roads has been constructed to connect residents to lower Alaska and dramatically reduce shipping costs. This is no relaxing drive through the countryside, though. Traversing the tundra is harrowing and dangerous, but it still could provide a vital link for residents of America’s northernmost city.
Coldest U.S. Temperature Ever
While Utqiagvik is the state’s coldest location on average, it does not hold the record for the coldest Alaskan temperature ever recorded. That honor goes to Prospect Creek, approximately 180 miles north of Fairbanks. On January 23, 1971, Prospect Creek dipped to a low temperature of -80°F. It still holds the record for the coldest temperature ever recorded both in Alaska and in the United States as a whole.
Alaska vs. the Lower 48
So how does Alaska compare with the coldest regions in the lower 48 states? It’s no surprise that Alaska’s northern location makes it the coldest U.S. state. But, just like the contest for the largest state, Alaska wins the coldest state competition, and it isn’t even close.
With an average temperature of 26.6°F, Alaska is far colder than the next coldest state. North Dakota features an average temperature of 40.4°F. Rounding out the top five coldest states, Maine averages 41°F, Minnesota checks in with an average of 41.2°F, and Wyoming averages a downright balmy 42°F.
The coldest temperature ever recorded in the 48 contiguous states was in Montana. On January 20, 1954, Rogers Pass, Montana, dipped to -70°F. Bone-chilling, to be sure, but it was still 10°F warmer than Alaska’s coldest-ever temperature.
Coldest, But Not the Snowiest
Surprisingly, while Alaska is easily the coldest state in the nation, it is not the snowiest. In fact, four states receive more snowfall than Alaska in an average year.
Vermont is the snowiest state, receiving over 89 inches of snow in a typical year. That’s a foot more than the next state on the list. Maine receives 77.28 inches of snow each year. New Hampshire sees 71.44 inches per year. Colorado gets 67.3 inches of yearly snowfall. And then we finally get to Alaska at #5, receiving 64.46 inches of snow per year. Vermont leads Alaska in annual snowfall by over two feet.
How is the coldest state in the U.S. (by a wide margin!) not also the snowiest? First, consider its size. Alaska is the largest state in the nation, while Vermont is the eighth smallest. Alaska covers 570,641 square miles, while Vermont’s land area is only 9,249 square miles.
The vast expanse of land in Alaska means the state can experience wildly different weather conditions within its borders. There are, indeed, sites in Alaska that get pounded with incredible amounts of snow every year. For example, Thompson Pass, located in the Chugach Mountains northeast of Valdez, receives 500 inches of snow per year! However, the state is so expansive that this astounding amount of snow is watered down, so to speak, in the state’s overall precipitation statistics.
Some areas in the state see little to no snow at all. In fact, the second-largest desert on the planet is found in Alaska! The Arctic Polar Desert covers 5.3 million square miles, and part of that desert is in Alaska.
Kobuk Valley National Park features this desert located in the Arctic Circle. The shifting sand dunes in the park’s three dune fields are the largest active dunes in the Arctic, covering 30 square miles.
As with all deserts, there is very little precipitation in the world’s second-largest desert. Oh, and in case you weren’t aware, the world’s largest desert is also polar: the Antarctic Polar Desert covers 5.4 million square miles. The world’s most well-known desert, the Sahara, is significantly smaller than both polar deserts, covering 3.6 million square miles.
Why Are Parts of Alaska So Dry?
While one may think that Alaska’s ranking as the coldest state would also make it the snowiest state, the opposite is actually true. Alaska’s extreme cold is precisely why the state does not receive as much snow as some other states.
In mid-late winter, evaporation is at its lowest point in the Northern Hemisphere. The seas are at their coolest temperatures. Ice cover is at its peak for the year on both salt and freshwater bodies. Forests are dormant. The sun shines briefly, or not at all, as in the Arctic Circle. All of these factors combine, meaning there is not much moisture entering the atmosphere through evaporation. This drives down the amount of precipitation.
Also, cold air holds far less moisture than warm air, so whatever small amount of moisture does evaporate cannot remain in the atmosphere very long. This is illustrated when you can “see your breath” on a frigid day. You are exhaling warm, moist air, but the cold winter air cannot hold that moisture. So, when the warm air you exhale hits the cold air of a winter day, the moisture condenses and essentially forms a cloud.
In meteorology, this is demonstrated in a measurement known as the dew point. It is commonly (and mostly incorrectly) referred to as humidity. The dew point measurement gives a far more accurate picture of the amount of moisture in the air than relative humidity.
A dew point of 75°F is tropical-level moisture. This is a normal dew point for New Orleans on a steamy summer day. If you have ever experienced it, you know that a dew point this high is downright oppressive.
A dew point of 70°F still makes for a miserable summer day. At a 60°F dew point, the conditions are beginning to feel humid. Dew points under 60°F are comfortable. And a dew point under 30°F is very dry.
Now, consider this: Alaska has the lowest average dew point in the United States at just 26.5°F. That is some seriously dry air! The extremely cold temperatures will not allow the atmosphere to hold moisture. This is one main reason why the coldest state in the nation is not also the snowiest.
The Great Land
Alaska’s name comes from the native Aleut word Aláxsxaq, which roughly translates as “great land.” It truly is a land of endless wonders and surprises. Who would expect Vermont to receive more snow than Alaska? Who would have thought the world’s second-largest desert would be found in Alaska? This state, by far the largest and also the coldest in the U.S., holds all of these surprises and many more.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Wirestock
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