Jesse Ferrell

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Was U.S. Record Low Temperature of Minus 80 Broken in Alaska?

January 31, 2012; 11:55 AM ET

It seems that an amateur weather station for the Alaska Department of Transportation at Jim's River, Alaska, measured a temperature of minus 79 F Saturday, only one degree from the all-time U.S. low temperature record of minus 80, then immediately stopped transmitting (meaning it's possible it went below that). Global Cooling enthusiasts wondered (on the Watt's Up blog, which broke the story) if the data outage was a government conspiracy, especially after NOAA's NWS said the data was inadmissible because it was "amateur."

But let's look closer. All stations, and their elevations are shown below, along with the low temperatures on Jan. 28. The closest official transmitting NWS "official" station is Bettles, Alaska, 24 miles to the west-northwest, reported -63 the same day. Because low temperatures can vary drastically within miles due to elevation and snow cover changes (see Illinois record low 2009 discussion), I think that it's plausible that stations in the area could have reached into the minus 70s.

Something else working in favor of the minus 79 reading is that satellite temperatures were measured at minus 73.1 F nearby. Satellite temperature estimation, however, is far from "official" and even though they matched an official surface station nearby by two degrees, the CIMSS blog admits "there is not always a direct 1:1 correspondence between satellite-sensed IR surface temperature values and the actual air temperature measured within an instrument shelter at a height of 5 feet above ground level."

I am familiar with the Davis weather station installed at the Jim's River location, and the CR123 lithium battery that keeps it transmitting (in fact, I just was troubleshooting one at a local school this morning). Neither is guaranteed to work beyond minus 40 F, and it's amazing that it made it as low as it did (or maybe it didn't, and the temperatures were wrong). I can't imagine that the station was sabotaged, as so few people even know of the U.S. record's existence.

Yes, the Prospect Creek airport "official" NWS weather station - only a mile away and at similar elevation - was also out of service, but it has been for some time. Gobbler's Knob only dipped to minus 35, but it is much higher in elevation; the cold air would have been draining into Jim's River. The knee-jerk reaction would be to disqualify the Jim's River reading, because it was operating outside of the temperatures where accuracy can be guaranteed. (Because all the outside data dropped out, not just the temperature, it's not likely that the missing data was a result of a quality control algorithm inside the station or at the Mesonet).

Even if a manual observation won't be considered "official" for the record books, the National Weather Service should dispatch someone with an accurate thermometer to Jim's River this morning, where the station is now reading minus 72. If that confirms the reading, then it's probable that it did reach at least minus 79. On the other hand, if it's way off, then it probably didn't happen.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of AccuWeather, Inc. or AccuWeather.com

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Jesse Ferrell
Jesse Ferrell's WeatherMatrix blog covers extreme weather worldwide with a concentration on weather photos and Social Media.