New Hampshire poet Donald Hall’s grandmother once said, “Thirty below this morning. Seems like it might get cold.” It does get cold in New England, and the coldest temperature in the region was well below minus 30.
The good news about cold snaps in New England is that they don’t last long. “They have a tendency to be more short-lived than in other parts of the country,” wrote Gregory A. Zielinski and Barry D. Keim in New England Weather, New England Climate. Thus, “The socioeconomic impact is not as widespread or as great as in other parts of the country.” Still. “Heat waves and cold spells can be dramatic in New England,” concede the authors.
April may be the cruelest month, but January tends to be the coldest in New England. The coldest temperature in four of six New England states was recorded in January, and the other two close in late December and mid-February.
The January thaw provides some consolation during the bitter weeks of winter. It’s a climatic singularity — a climate event that happens every year at about the same time. The January thaw happens nearly every January, usually between the 21st and the 25th. Temperatures will rise from about January 22 to January 25 throughout the region.
New England weather varies from the north to the south, andfrom the coast to the interior. The lowest temperature inland — in places like Caribou, Maine, Burlington, Vt., and Keene, N.H. — happen around January 17. In the south and along the coast — Hartford and Boston, for example — the coldest temperature happens around January 31.
The Lake Champlain region — northwestern Vermont — has the greatest daily variation in temperature in the country. Lowest temperatures vary day-to-day by as much as 10 degrees in January.
Here, then, are the places that recorded the coldest temperature in each New England state.
Norfolk, known as the “Icebox of Connecticut,” recorded the coldest official temperature in the state on Feb. 16, 1943. Unofficially, temperatures fell to 45 below zero in some northwest Connecticut towns. Subzero temperatures that night were also recorded in places as far south as Nantucket and New Haven.
“A chilly spot,” is how a New York Times reporter characterized the town in a Feb. 14, 1988 story. “It is the place where the snow is said to be deeper, the temperatures lower and the winters longer than elsewhere in Connecticut.” Norfolk also gets the most snow in Connecticut during an average year — 107 inches.
February 1943 was a frigid month throughout the Northeast, a time when World War II raged overseas. The government had just announced shoe rationing in order to make more leather available to the military. That spurred scare buying of apparel in early February. But then the Arctic cold that settled over the region put an end to the panic buying of clothing, the Times reported. The government, by the way, also rationed coal, the heating fuel used by most New Englanders.
Coldest Temperature in Maine
The coldest cold in New England happens when high pressure in Canada pushes air from the North Pole into the region — the “Siberian Express.” It can drop temperatures well below zero for several nights and keep them below zero during the daytime.
The Siberian Express hit New England in January of 2009, a winter already colder than usual. On January 16 the thermometer read minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit in Clayton Lake, an unincorporated village in Aroostook County, Maine. That was two degrees colder than the coldest temperature ever recorded in Maine. So cold, in fact, that it triggered two meetings of the state’s Records Verification Committee.
The University of Maine’s Maine Climate News reported the committee brought together people from an alphabet soup of government agencies. They included the National Weather Service (NWS) in Caribou, the U.S. Geological Service (USGS) in Augusta, the Maine state climatologist, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Northeast Regional Climate Center (NRCC) in Ithaca, N.Y. and the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.
An instrument at the Big Black River station for the USGS had recorded the Arctic temperature. The climatologists then challenged the reading and had several instruments tested. In the end, the Records Verification Committee unanimously voted to accept the minus 50 degree verdict.
Henry David Thoreau had written about another cold Friday in 1810, but that was before alphabet soup.
Coldest Temperature: The Bay State
On Super Bowl Sunday in 1984, the temperature plunged to a record minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit in Chester, Mass., a small town on the eastern edge of the Berkshires. Any Chester resident who braved the cold to attend a Super Bowl party that January 22nd watched the Los Angeles Raiders beat the Washington Redskins, 38-9.
Chester also holds the distinction of being only one of three U.S. places that recorded the hottest and coldest temperature in its state. On Aug. 2, 1975, known as New England’s Hot Saturday, the mercury rose to 107 degrees Fahrenheit. (The other two are Millsboro, Del., and Warsaw, Mo.) That’s higher than the highest recorded temperatures in the Florida cities of Miami and Orlando.
Sargent’s Purchase (aka Mount Washington)
The White Mountains have a way of creating their own weather, and on Jan. 22, 1885, their highest peak, Mount Washington, came up with a doozy. The thermometer showed minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mount Washington, not known for its balmy weather, has recorded temperatures as low as eight degrees Fahrenheit — in June.
The mountain’s mean annual temperature is near 26 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Zielenski and Keim. They call it “the ultimate New England example of how elevation affects temperature.” Temperature decreases at a rate of 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit every thousand feet up. Mount Washington is 6,288 feet high. It also averages 254 inches of snow every year.
Mount Washington also set a record, since broken for the highest wind speed. On April 12, 1934, observers recorded a gust of 231 mph — and lived to tell about it.
Rhode Island’s Coldest Temperature
The United States had entered World War II just six weeks earlier when Richmond, R.I., experienced the state’s coldest temperature: minus 28 degrees Fahrenheit. It was January 17, 1942, the day after a German U-boat sank the tanker Coimbra off Long Island.
It figures that the warmest coldest temperature would happen in Rhode Island. The Ocean State, along with southern Connecticut, has a mean average temperature higher than the rest of New England.
Rhode Island has widely varying weather, from day to day and from season to season, according to the state meteorologist, Lenny Giuliano.
But Richmond lies a few miles inland in the southwest part of the state. “Southwestern Rhode Island, from four to 10 miles inland, exhibits a coolness not suggested by the nearness to the ocean,” Lenny Giuliano, state meteorologist, wrote.
Subzero temperatures happen rarely in Rhode Island — typically, one day a year or not at all along the coast and five per year in most of the interior. But in cold winters, the southwest part of the state can get as many as eight below-zero days a few miles in from the coast.
Cold Comfort in Vermont
The tiny town of Bloomfield, Vt., shared the coldest temperature ever in New England with Clayton Lake, Maine, 75 years earlier. On Dec. 30, 1933, the weather service reported temperatures of −50°F in the Northern Vermont town of about 400.
Prohibition had ended that month, which may have stopped the smuggling of booze across the line from Canada. Rum running wasn’t uncommon in those lean times, and the line houses along the border were a little over 20 miles away from Bloomfield.
So when Prohibition ended that December, Bloomfield residents could warm themselves with a shot of brandy – legally.
This story was updated in 2023.
Images: Mount Washington By Harvey Barrison – originally posted to Flickr as White Mountains_12 30 09_81, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10396490. Snowy Night Wolcott, M. P., photographer. (1940) Center of town. Woodstock, Vermont. “Snowy night”. United States Vermont Windsor County Woodstock, 1940. Mar. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017802584/..