Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Peter Sinks
Courtesy Utah Climate Center

Peter Sinks
Campbell Scientific Weather Station

Courtesy Utah Climate Center

Holly: Hi, I’m Holly Strand.

-18 in Logan, -20 in Moab, -26 degrees in Randolph. In other words, it’s January in Utah! Subzero temps are common this time of year across most of the state.

Some sources give – 50 degrees Fahrenheit as the coldest temperature ever recorded in Utah. It was -50 on Feb 6, 1899 in Woodruff and again on Jan 5, 1913 at the East Portal of Strawberry Reservoir. But—as many of you know—the real lowest temperature recorded was -69 degrees occurring at Peter Sinks on Feb 1, 1985. There were two weather stations recording at the time. A Campbell Scientific instrument recorded a temperature of -70.5 from a sensor 20 inches above the snow surface. A few days later, USU student Zane Stephens retrieved a minimum recording alcohol thermometer which registered -68.3. The National Bureau of Standards calibrated Stephens’ thermometer which adjusted the reading to -69.3. This became the ‘official’ temperature minimum since– at that time–the National Weather Service only recognized the type of weather station used by Stephens.

While the -69 observation was verified, the station it came from was not part of any long-term weather monitoring network. That’s why you still see the -50 cited as the low. But -69 is so much better. For this figure gives Utah boasting rights for having the 2nd coldest recorded temperature in the lower 48 (plus Hawaii). -69 beats the coldest temperature recorded in Europe which is only -67. And it comes fairly close to North America’s record which is -81 in the Canadian Yukon. Just so you know, Asia’s record is -90 in Verkhoyansk in Siberia. And of course, Antarctica takes the cake with -129 at Vostok Research Station.

But back to Utah. Peter Sinks—where the -69 reading occurred–is an oval-shaped limestone sinkhole located on the crest of the Bear River Range just west of Old Limber Pine off of Highway 89. It’s about 150 meters deep and 1 km long. Having no tributary valleys, it’s a perfectly closed basin. On clear nights the area surrounding the sink radiates away its heat. And if the wind is calm, the, colder heavier air sinks and pools on the basin floor . If there were an outlet the cold air could flow out and warmer air could lower in to replace the outgoing cold. But there isn’t an outlet.

You probably recognize this situation—it’s an inversion. The Wasatch Front valleys and Cache Valley experience this same phenomenon during winter. Snow cover reflects incoming sunlight which cools the land surface and warm temperatures aloft seal the colder air down below. Meanwhile, a high pressure system called the Great Basin High brings clear, still air which locks the inversion in place. But the large size of these populated valleys prevents the temperature from dropping down to -69. Thank goodness. But in our case, manmade pollutants created during the inversions create a toxic cold air cocktail that we have to endure. At least until a low pressure system comes in and blows the lid off the inversion, pulling the cold air upward and “mixing” it away.

For more information on inversions and to see pictures of the notorious Peter Sinks, visit www.wildaboututah.org

Thanks to Robert Davies of the Utah Climate Center at Utah State University for his help in developing this episode.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.

Credits:

Image: Courtesy Utah Climate Center
Text: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:

Ahrens, C. Donald, Perry Samson. Extreme weather and climate. Belmont, CA : Brooks/Cole, Cengage Learning.

Clements, Craig B. Whiteman, C. David Horel, John D. 2003. Cold-Air-Pool Structure and Evolution in a Mountain Basin: Peter Sinks, Utah. Journal of Applied Meteorology, Jun 01, 2003; Vol. 42, No. 6, p. 752-768

Moller, Allen; Robert R. Gillies. 2008 Utah Climate. Logan, Utah: Utah Climate Center, Utah State University

NOAA, State Climate Exchange Committee. State Temperature Extremes http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/extremes/scec/records

Utah Climate Center, Utah State University http://climate.usurf.usu.edu/

Utah Climate Center with support from Campbell Scientific, Inc. Peter Sinks Monitoring Project. Site history, data and more pictures. http://twdef.usu.edu/Peter_Sinks/Sinks.html

Utah.Gov Choose Clean Air http://www.cleanair.utah.gov/

A Utah Skier’s Snow Lexicon

Utah Skier Brian Head Courtesy USDA Forest Service
Utah Skier
Brian Head
Courtesy USDA Forest Service
Hi, I’m Holly Strand from Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

Many linguists believe that the language we use both affects and reflects our experience of the world. A popular illustration is that Eskimos have an unusually large number of words to describe snow—32 or more depending on the source. This diverse snow vocabulary is said to be linked with the fact that Eskimos live in a snowy environment and therefore various conditions or forms of snow are more meaningful to them.

There’s a problem with this example: First of all, the term Eskimo is troublesome. A number of cultures are referred to under the umbrella term “Eskimo” and a number of different languages are in the Eskimo-Aleut family.
Secondly, Eskimo-Aleut languages such as Inuit or Yupik tend to join noun roots and suffixes into one word while the same concept may exist in other languages as two words or a phrase.

Some experts believe that an American skier has just as many words for snow as the so-called Eskimo. There are terms defining different snow conditions in the air, on the ground or in certain formations.
In the air, a single unit of snow is a flake. A lot of flakes blowing at least 35 mph is a blizzard. A whiteout is a blizzard with zero visibility. A flurry is swirling mass of snow moved by sudden gusts of wind. Graupel is snow that has been coated by frozen cloud droplets to form a somewhat spherical shape. Snain is a mix of snow and rain, known offslope as “wintry mix.”

Once it hits the ground, snow ideally exists as champagne powder. Untracked snow is delightful and bottomless powder can be fun but challenging. Snow boarders and backcountry skiers might refer to a fresh dump of powder as phat pow. (As in “Dude, it’s gonna be a phat pow day.”) On a clear cold night when surface hoar forms on top of powder, you can get loud powder which makes a beautiful tinkling sound when you ski over it.

Lightly packed powder is acceptable snow for most skiers. Beginner skiers often look for freshly groomed snow. Snow that has been repeatedly groomed by snow cats creates corduroy snow.

There seem to be a lot more words for snow that reflect less favorable ski conditions. Crud, boilerplate, bulletproof, breakable crust, slush and mashed potatoes to name a few. Corn means that large, loose snow crystals froze at night, melted loose during the day and now act like ball bearings under your feet or skis. Death cookies, or frozen chicken heads form when spring slush refreezes. Utah skiers venturing outside the state might encounter blue ice in the East or Sierra cement to the west.

While you are skiing, you might encounter snow in the form of a drift, cornice, avalanche, bank, pipe, roll or mogul. If children are around you might see a snowman, snowfort or snowcave.

I’ve really just touched the surface here. If you consider all the words for snow, ice and crystal structures and weather conditions, the number of snow words really soars. As snow specialists with a diverse vocabulary, you could say that Utah skiers could give the Eskimos a run for their money.

Thanks to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting research and development of Wild About Utah topics.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Holly Strand.

Credits:

Photo: Travel.Utah.gov

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Thanks to Jim Akers, Sara Goeking, and Phaedra Budy for their assistance with snow terminology.

Interesting Reading:

Pullum, George. 1991. The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. University of Chicago Press.