Skip to main content

Cold Start to New Year Gives Way to January Thaw

An Arctic Air Mass gripped the state on New Year’s Day this year bringing subzero temperatures to all areas of the state. Only a few areas of southeastern Minnesota remained above zero degrees F. Morning lows of -30 degrees F or colder were reported in portions of St Louis, Itasca, Koochiching, Cook, and Lake of the Woods Counties of northern Minnesota. Daytime high temperatures remained in the single digits above zero at a number of climate stations. This was the second consecutive New Year’s Day (2018-2019) that subzero temperatures have dominated the state.

However, a warming trend began early on January 3rd of this week with southwest winds and sunny skies. Temperatures warmed by dramatically. After -31°F at International Falls on New Year’s morning, the temperature rose to 39°F by afternoon on January 3rd, a 70 degree temperature rise. Following near record high daytime temperatures on Friday, January 4th temperatures will moderate but deliver daily highs above the freezing mark to many areas around the state for 5-7 consecutive days. This will diminish the snow and ice left over from a wetter than normal December.

Record High Temperatures on January 3rd:

Many northern climate stations reported new record high temperatures on Thursday, January 3rd. Some of these included: 37 degrees F at Crane Lake, 39 degrees F at Cook, 40 degrees F at Baudette, 39 degrees F at Bigfork, and 44 degrees F at Orr.

For many other areas in Minnesota it was the warmest January 3rd since 1984.

Weekly Weather Potpourri:

Tropical Cyclone Penny and Tropical Cyclone Mona were spinning in the South Pacific Ocean this week well east of Australia. They were largely expected to remain of modest strength and meander out to sea, though Mona is expected to bring heavy rains (6-12 inches) to parts of Fiji this weekend. Meanwhile Tropical Storm Pabuk was bringing heavy surf, high winds, and rain to some tropical islands off the coast of Thailand, where tourists were retreating from being exposed to the storm.

A recent paper by scientists at MIT documents that the oscillation between wet and dry climate regimes in North Africa is primarily driven by a 20,000 cycling in the Earth’s axis with respect to the orbit around the sun. This in-turn affects the amount of solar radiation in that region of the world as well as the types of precipitation patterns that occur.

A recent paper highlighted this week in the AGU-EOS documents the relationship between variations in the African Monsoon Climate and glaciation in Europe. This has been going on for hundreds of thousands of years.

MPR listener question:

I have heard you say that a January thaw is quite common for many areas of the state. How frequent is it?


Most residents of the Twin Cities area consider the January thaw to be a given or constant. They know it will come, just not precisely when. In 2019 it is coming early in the month with above freezing temperatures expected from the 3rd through the 10th.

Indeed for many central and southern Minnesota locations a January thaw is quite common or frequent. The definition of a January thaw is variable. Some consider it to be any single day with a temperature above 32 degrees F. But consequences associated with a January thaw, like loss of snow cover, melting and drying of street surfaces and sidewalks, softening of lake ice, etc are generally not realized unless daytime high temperatures rise above the freezing mark for two or more days. Using this as a sorting criteria we can look at the historical frequency of such temperatures for various locations. These frequencies of January thaws (listed below) are highest in most of southern Minnesota, and even parts of central Minnesota, but more like a 50/50 probability in the far northern sections of the state.

Historical frequency of January thaws at various locations since 1948
(defined as two or more days with daytime high temperatures greater than 32 F)
Twin Cities 91 percent      Rochester 95 percent      Pipestone 92 percent
Fairmont 92 percent      St Cloud 87 percent      Morris 80 percent
Crookston 62 percent      Duluth 62 percent       International Falls 53 percent

It is interesting to note that the three consecutive years of 1977, 1978, and 1979 brought no January thaw to most of Minnesota. All three were dominated by abundant January snow cover and are ranked among the top 15 coldest Januarys in state history. The last year without a January thaw in most places was 1994. Some areas of the state saw no January thaw in 2009 and 2014.

Twin Cities Almanac for January 4th:

The average MSP high temperature for this date is 24 degrees F (plus or minus 13 degrees F standard deviation), while the average low is 8 degrees F (plus or minus 14 degrees F standard deviation).

MSP Local Records for January 4th:

MSP records for this date include: highest daily maximum temperature of 41 degrees F in 2007; lowest daily maximum temperature of -14 degree F in 1884; lowest daily minimum temperature of -32 degrees F in 1884; highest daily minimum temperature of 33 degrees F in 2007; record precipitation of 0.57 inches in 1997. Record snowfall is 3.2 inches also in 1910.

Average dew point for January 4th is 5°F; the maximum dew point on this date is 37°F in 1946; and the minimum dew point on this date is -39°F in 1924

All-time state records for January 4th:

The state record high temperature for this date is 52 degrees F at Milan (Chippewa County) in 2012. The state record low temperature for this date is -48 degrees F at Leech Lake (Cass County) in 1896. The state record precipitation for this date is 2.13 inches at Red Wing (Goodhue County) in 1886. Record snowfall for this date is 24.0 inches at Wheaton (Traverse County) also in 1997.

Past Weather Features:

An Arctic Air Mass brought severe cold to the state over January 3-4, 1896. Virtually all climate stations reported subzero minimum temperature readings with many areas of -40 degrees F in the north. The high temperature at Roseau on January 4, 1896 was a frigid -22°F.

A major winter storm paralyzed many parts of Minnesota over January 3-5, 1997, the first weekend of the New Year. The storm brought rain, freezing rain, and ice pellets starting on Friday, January 3rd, but then turned into all snowfall for the weekend. Many climate stations reported record-setting amounts of snowfall, especially in western counties, where up to 28 inches was reported from Browns Valley. Many roads were closed due to blizzard conditions. The DNR-State Climatology Office documented this storm well.

January 4-11, 2012 brought a remarkable mid-winter warm up to Minnesota. Over 30 Minnesota climate statins reached the 40s F or higher with some reports of 50 degrees F in western counties. Many overnight low temperatures were greater than the normal daily high temperatures.

Trivia: Today’s date January 4th is one of only 5 days on the annual calendar (others are December 27, January 2, January 3, and January 16) when the daytime high has never reached 55 degrees F anywhere in the state in over 150 years of climate history.


A warm spell into the weekend with a lot of daytime temperatures in the 30s and 40s F. Increasing cloudiness later on Sunday with a chance for mixed precipitation (rain and snow) in southern areas of the state and mostly snow in the north, continuing into Monday. Mostly dry next week with temperatures several degrees warmer than normal.

Print Friendly and PDF