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Today in history: Coldest temperature ever recorded in Michigan

February is known to have the coldest winter temperatures in the Great Lakes region.

Thanks to the tilt of the Earth and the transition toward spring in March, February is prone to have drastic swings in the weather.

And on Feb. 9, 1934, cold air plunged south from the Arctic, thanks to a dip in the jet stream. It resulted in the coldest temperature ever in Michigan, recorded in Vanderbilt.

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That temperature was -51°F! That was the temperature even without the consideration of the wind. Imagine if how cold it would’ve felt with just a slight breeze. Despite being set 90 years ago, it is still the record coldest temperature ever recorded in the state.

Why Vanderbilt?

There are many likely reasons why Vanderbilt holds the record for the coldest temperature. The official station in the Vanderbilt area has been in the region since 1913. Vanderbilt is located in Otsego County, in the central area of the Northern Lower Peninsula. The geography of the central area of the Northern Lower is at a higher elevation compared to other areas in the state.

Vanderbilt’s elevation is 1,096 feet, compared to 626 feet in Traverse City. While Vanderbilt is not the highest elevation in the state, higher elevations are prone to feeling colder temperatures, because air cools as it rises.

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Another reason the air temperature was likely able to get so cold was the amount of ice on the lakes. Our Great Lakes are something special year round, and in the winter our lakes work to keep us warmer.

When there is little to no ice on the lakes, the water is warmer than the air. When we get cold air outbreaks, the warm, ice free water can shelter us from feeling colder than states that do not have them, like North Dakota and Minnesota.

While there is little data on ice dating back to 1934, it is likely that the Great Lakes had a large amount of ice coverage, which would have allowed less cold air to be absorbed by the warm waters of the lakes, and instead make its way to inland areas.

With the lakes in mind, the winds that day were from the Northeast, helping to bring to cold air from the cold, Canadian land. Winds from the NE also result in less influence from the lakes, because of the path over the narrower and shallower Straits of Mackinac.

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In the same month, weather stations in Grand Rapids recorded temperatures as low as -17°F. Locations in Montmorency County experienced temperatures of -37°, which resulted in a study on the devastation of cherry crops.

One other likely reason the coldest temperature was recorded in Vanderbilt was because of the scarcity of official observations of weather at the time. However, the official station in Vanderbilt that recorded the temperature still exists today.

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To find out what our current temperatures will be and other forecast details, head to our weather page.


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