COTTON - Greg and Stephanie Larson thought it was cold enough when they were fishing on the Rainy River in 35 below zero temperatures Sunday morning.
Then they got home. Greg, a volunteer observer for the National Weather Service, checked their digital thermometer.
While they were gone, it had hit 56 below in Cotton - good enough to tie for the fifth coldest temperature ever recorded in Minnesota.
“I told Steph, ‘Come here and look at this,’” Greg recalled. “I can’t believe how cold it got.”
The weather station in the Larsons’ backyard again hit the mark of 56 below around sunrise Thursday - missing the state record of 60 below, but setting the mark as the coldest place in the continental U.S. for the day.
A slight fog that rolled through the area may have been a contributing factor to keep Tower’s 1996 record intact, meteorologists said.
Across the region, International Falls set a new daily record at 45 below zero as the Polar Vortex weather system pumped one more batch of cold air into the Northland. In Wisconsin, Butternut’s 47 below was short of the 55-below record set in Couderay in 1996.
Duluth hit 31 below zero, Ely 38 below and Bemidji 36 below in what forecasters say should be the final deep freeze day of a frigid week. Temperatures by Sunday could be 60 degrees warmer, with highs approaching 30 degrees above zero in parts of the Northland.
The Larsons have frequently observed temperatures bottoming out in the 40s below zero during their 15 years in Cotton, but Greg Larson said the idea of making a run for the state record never crossed his mind until this week.
“We never talked about it, never had any idea until we saw on Sunday how cold it was,” he said. “I was actually kind of surprised when the Weather Service called us (Wednesday) and told us to be ready.”
The Larson home played host to a number of meteorologists and journalists - the Wall Street Journal among them - as everyone waited to see if the 23-year-old record would fall. Unlike the old days when observers would head outdoors to manually read their liquid-in-glass thermometers, conditions today can be recorded from a digital monitor inside.
The monitor in the Larson’s living room registered 55.9 below around 7:30 a.m., but refused to tick any lower. Sunday actually came in a half-degree colder at 56.4 below - though both days will be officially rounded to 56 below for the record books.
Greg Larson wasn’t too shaken up about missing out on a small piece of Minnesota history.
“I don’t know if it’s good to be a celebrity because you’re the coldest place in the state,” he joked.
National Weather Service meteorologists Dan Miller and Joe Moore traveled to the Larson home, hoping to be present if the record fell. Officials had been monitoring conditions throughout this week’s deep freeze, indicating Wednesday that Cotton had the best chance to make history.
In recent years, Cotton has quietly joined mainstays such as Tower, Embarrass and International Falls in the conversation of cold-weather bragging rights, routinely registering as the coldest or second coldest location across the Northland.
The reason, officials said, is the Larsons signing on to join the Cooperative Observer Program, which relies on citizens across the country to observe and report daily temperatures and precipitation to their local National Weather Service office.
“We’ve never felt like it was any competition at all,” Greg Larson said. “But we do make a few jabs back and forth.”
The Larsons’ 89-acre homestead is situated right on the Whiteface River and also benefits from low elevation - two factors Miller said make for regular bone-chilling temperatures.
“From a meteorological perspective, this is kind of an ideal location because you’re near a river valley and the cold air just tends to collect in all these subtle, low places,” he said. “We see on satellite all the time out in some of the boggy areas of Koochiching County, northern St. Louis County, northern Itasca County - but we just don’t have thermometers there, so who knows how cold it actually gets.”
While the region has battled intense wind chills - some as low as the 60s below in recent days - air temperatures will generally bottom out when conditions are calm and skies are clear.
There was little wind to speak of Thursday morning in Cotton, but some fog had rolled in. That tends to lead to the release of some heat into the atmosphere, Miller explained.
“That’s one thing that could’ve made the difference,” he said. “Even though we’re not at minus-60, we’re at minus-56 and it’s really hard to get temperatures this cold.”
Thursday morning low temperatures
56 below: Cotton
50 below: Kabetogama
47 below: Butternut, Brimson, Celina
46 below: Effie
45 below: International Falls, Hill City
44 below: Floodwood
43 below: Tower, Brainerd
42 below: Babbitt, Crane Lake, Embarrass, Isabella, Orr, Littlefork
41 below: Grand Rapids, Moose Lake, Hibbing, Wright
39 below: Ely, Aurora
38 below: Aitkin, Cook, Virginia
35 below: Cloquet, Silver Bay, McGregor
34 below: Duluth National Weather Service
33 below: Two Harbors, Hayward
30 below: Superior
29 below: Grand Marais
27 below: Duluth harbor
News Tribune reporters John Myers and Jimmy Lovrien contributed to this report.