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The United States is the third largest nation in the world by landmass, behind Russia and Canada. With such a large amount of real estate, the US offers a wide variety of climates within its borders.
Florida is the warmest of the US states on an annual average, followed by Hawaii. That might come as a bit of a surprise as many would expect Hawaii to take the top spot. While Hawaii has the warmest winter of any US state, the Pacific Ocean provides breezes that help moderate summer temperatures in the Aloha State. Meanwhile, summer temperatures in Florida are soaring, allowing Florida to earn the award as the nation’s warmest state.
That might come as a slight surprise, but being the coldest US state is probably no surprise at all. Alaska takes that title with ease.
The United States bought what would later become the state of Alaska from Russia in 1867. The total cost was $7.2 million, which was less than two cents per acre! Alaska would remain a US territory until finally being admitted to the Union on January 3, 1959 as the 49th state.
size and location
Alaska is the largest US state by area, and it’s nowhere near that. At 570,641 square miles, Alaska is larger 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 closest US state, Washington State. Meanwhile, Alaska is only 55 miles from Russia, separated by the Bering Strait. The state’s only land border is shared with Canada and stretches for 1,500 miles.
Alaska is technically in both the western and eastern hemispheres. The 180th meridian runs 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, temperatures can vary widely across Alaska. Despite being the coldest state in the US, there are some parts of the state that really aren’t that cold by comparison.
Sitka, for example, has a more 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 glorious 62°F.
During the summer months, it is common for locations in interior Alaska to rise above 80°F. The hottest temperature ever recorded in Alaska reached three digits. Fort Yukon recorded 100°F on June 27, 1915, although some experts question the reliability of this measurement. However, no one questions Alaska’s second-highest temperature on record. Richardson, Alaska registered 98°F on June 15, 1969. Obviously, Alaska isn’t always cold. But when the Alaskan cold is on, it’s no joke.
The coldest place in Alaska is Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow). Located in the Arctic Circle, it is the northernmost city in the United States.
From December to March, the average maximum temperature in Utqiagvik is below 0°F. The two months of November and April that frame this brutally cold stretch have average highs in the single digits. The average high temperature in Utqiagvik is in the single digits or colder for six months of the year. The warmest month for Utqiagvik is July with an average high temperature of 47°F.
Until recently, Utqiagvik was only accessible by plane or boat (which is only possible in the warmer months when the water isn’t frozen). There are no paved roads because Utqiagvik lies on a thick layer of permafrost. The cost of shipping goods to Utqiagvik made the cost of living there extraordinarily high. To reduce these costs, a system of snow roads was built to connect residents to lower Alaska and drastically reduce shipping costs. However, this is not a relaxing drive through the countryside. Traversing the tundra is harrowing and dangerous, but it could still provide a vital connection for residents of America’s northernmost city.
Coldest US temperature on record
Although Utqiagvik is, on average, the coldest place in the state, it does not hold the record for the coldest temperature ever recorded in Alaska. That honor goes to Prospect Creek, about 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 in both Alaska and the United States overall.
Alaska versus the Lower 48
How does Alaska compare to the coldest regions in the lower 48 states? It’s no surprise that Alaska’s northern location makes it the coldest US state. But just like the contest for largest state, Alaska wins the contest for coldest state, and it’s not even close.
With an average temperature of 26.6°F, Alaska is much colder than the next coldest state. North Dakota has an average temperature of 40.4°F. To round out the 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 dropped to -70°F. Creepy, to be sure, but it was still 10°F warmer than Alaska’s coldest-ever temperature.
The coldest, but not the snowiest
Surprisingly, while Alaska is by far the coldest state in the nation, it’s not the snowiest. In fact, four states get more snow 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 longer than the next state on the list. Maine receives 77.28 inches of snow each year. New Hampshire sees 71.44 inches a year. Colorado receives 67.3 inches of annual snowfall. And then we finally get to Alaska at number 5 and get 64.46 inches of snow a year. Vermont leads Alaska in annual snowfall by over two feet.
Why isn’t the coldest state in the USA (by far!) also the snowiest? First, consider its size. Alaska is the nation’s largest state while Vermont is the eighth smallest. Alaska covers 570,641 square miles while Vermont’s land area is only 9,249 square miles.
The vastness of land in Alaska means the state can experience a wide variety of weather conditions within its borders. Indeed, there are places in Alaska that receive incredible amounts of snow every year. Thompson Pass, located in the Chugach Mountains northeast of Valdez, receives 500 inches of snow a year! However, the country is so expansive that this staggering amount of snow is sort of diluted in the country’s overall rainfall statistics.
Some areas in the state see little to no snow. In fact, Alaska is home to the second largest desert on earth! The Arctic polar desert covers 5.3 million square miles, and part of this desert is in Alaska.
Located in the Kobuk Valley National Park, this desert is located in the Arctic Circle. The shifting dunes in the park’s three dune fields are the largest active dunes in the Arctic, covering 30 square miles.
As in all deserts, the second largest desert in the world receives very little rainfall. Oh, and in case you didn’t know, the world’s largest desert is also polar: The Antarctic Polar Desert covers 5.4 million square miles. The world’s most famous desert, the Sahara, at 3.6 million square miles, is significantly smaller than the two polar deserts.
Why is part of Alaska so dry?
While one might think that Alaska’s ranking as the coldest state would also make it the snowiest state, the opposite is true. Alaska’s extreme cold is precisely why the state doesn’t receive as much snow as some other states.
In the middle of late winter, evaporation is lowest in the northern hemisphere. The seas have their coolest temperatures. Ice coverage is at its peak of the year on both salt and fresh water bodies. forests are dormant. The sun shines briefly or not at all, as in the Arctic Circle. All of these factors work together, meaning not much moisture is released into the atmosphere through evaporation. This reduces the amount of precipitation.
Also, cold air contains much less moisture than warm air, so any small amount of moisture that evaporates can’t stay in the atmosphere for very long. This is illustrated when you can “see your breath” on a cold day. You exhale warm, moist air, but the cold winter air can’t hold that moisture. So when the warm air you exhale meets the cold air of a winter day, the moisture condenses, essentially forming a cloud.
In meteorology, this is demonstrated in a measurement known as the dew point. It is commonly (and often incorrectly) referred to as moisture. The dew point measurement gives a much more accurate picture of the moisture content of the air than the relative humidity.
A dew point of 75°F is tropical humidity. This is the normal dew point for New Orleans on a hot summer day. If you’ve experienced it before, you know that a dew point that high is downright oppressive.
A dew point of 70°F still makes for a miserable summer day. With a dew point of 60°F, conditions start to feel humid. Dew points below 60°F are comfortable. And a dew point below 30°F is very dry.
Consider this: Alaska has the lowest average dew point in the United States at just 26.5°F. This is really dry air! The extremely cold temperatures do not allow the atmosphere to absorb moisture. This is one of the main reasons why the coldest state in the nation isn’t also the snowiest.
The big country
Alaska’s name derives from the native Aleut word Aláxsxaq, which roughly translates to “great country.” It is truly a land of endless wonder and surprise. Who would expect Vermont to get more snow than Alaska? Who would have thought that Alaska is home to the second largest desert in the world? This state, by far the largest and also the coldest in the USA, holds all these surprises and many more.
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