Doesn’t it seem like whenever this time of year rolls around there’s always that one person who just HAS to ask you that question? Despite my not being a North Dakota native, I’ve grown to love living here – despite the winters, which I’ll just describe as “character-building”. I always respond to the question in true Midwestern fashion: “It could be worse.”
Even though it’s -8° as I’m typing this, the forecast low for tonight here in Grand Forks is -16° and parts of the Red River Valley may even see temperatures around -20°. It sure is cold, but the truth is that it really could be worse. Much worse, in fact, when you consider that the all-time record low in Grand Forks was -42°, set on February 16, 1936. February 1936 was a particularly brutal month in these parts. According to climate data from intellicast.com, Grand Forks set eight record lows that month, four of which were in the -30s and the other four of which were in the -40s!
So why is the Red River Valley so cold? Some like to say that it’s Mother Nature’s way of keeping the riff-raff out, but the real answer lies in our geography. First, let’s consider the effects of our northerly latitude. Being located at 48° north of the equator means that during the shortest days of the winter we receive less than 8½ hours of daylight. The little bit of sunlight we see then isn’t very intense either, since the sun can be as little as 18° over the horizon at high noon, plus most of the radiation we receive from it is reflected back by the usual blanket of bright white snow. The next thing to consider is our topography. While our area can appear to be as flat as a pancake, we truly are in a valley; locations 20 miles east or west of us can be a few hundred feet higher than we are. Cold air is more dense than warmer air, and so it sinks to the lowest elevation. Since we just happen to be at the lowest elevation around, that means we’re the lucky ones who get stuck with it! Finally, North Dakota – specifically Rugby – is located at the dead center of our continent. Oceans have a moderating effect on climate, and being near one will usually cause an area to have milder winters and summers. We’re about as far from one as you can possibly get, so we’re far more prone to temperature extremes in both seasons.
In case all of this has you clicking your heels and saying “There’s no place like Arizona”, just remember that our reward comes in June when it’s nice and warm and our days are over 16 hours long.