By Pat Higgins

Ask any Mainer; they love to talk weather. Not only is it the default conversation starter, it's the perennial favorite. It crosses all barriers-age, sex, religion, race, education, social status- breaks the ice every time (no pun intended). And nothing is a bigger source of pride than the fabled Maine Winter! It brings out the best and worst in us. Preparedness, self-reliance, hardiness and neighborliness battle depression, isolation, frozen toes and danger. We describe, compare and jaw about it with relish. And, oh boy, if you're from away, it is THE single, most defining experience. Wintering over will move you up in the pecking order (but only a little bit) - you will, of course, always be "from away".

Colonial Maine Winters:
Popham Colony, the first attempt by the English to settle in New England, led the way with many "firsts". Notably, on January 18, 1607, the first known weather report for Maine was recorded in the colony's log. True to that old Mark Twain adage "if you don't like the weather, wait a minute", the report recorded the following in a seven hour period: "thunder, lightning, raine, frost, snow all in abundance, the last continuing". This was the English colonists' first winter in Maine; they did not know that weather in Maine is always unpredictable at best. By spring they had lost heart and returned to England. Of the colony's abandonment, promoter Sir Ferdinando Gorges wrote, "All our hopes were frozen to death". No more formal attempts at English colonization in New England occurred until the 1620 arrival of the Pilgrims.
The French didn't fare much better. De Monts and Champlain set up camp on St. Croix Island in 1604. They spent most of the summer exploring up and down the coast looking for the legendary Norumbega. They should have spent more time scouting out a good site for their settlement. The winter came on quick and hard. Before too long, the little island was stripped of trees for firewood. Great slabs of ice were churned up in the St. Croix River by the tides. It was too dangerous to go ashore for more wood. The colonists nearly froze; the food they ate was frozen (and uncooked). Not only that, there was no adequate source of drinking water, frozen or otherwise, on St. Croix. Unlike the Popham colonists, the French settlers died of disease (mostly scurvy). A third did not survive the winter; another third were permanently disabled. They were trapped for the winter, but as soon as conditions permitted in the spring, they packed up and left.

Against all expectations, European settlers found Maine winters to be formidable. Maine and England are on nearly the same latitude, and the settlers anticipated a similar climate. What they could not understand was that Maine experiences a continental climate and is less influenced by proximity to the ocean than expected. In other words, the prevailing climactic influence is from the west in the form of cold dry air from Canada. (Rolfe)
These early Mainers soon found that they needed to spend every moment of the warmer seasons preparing for winter. Neither their dwellings, clothing or food production were particularly adaptable to the Maine winters. Thomas Gorges, nephew to Sir Ferdinando and his deputy in 1640's Maine, frequently described the Maine winter as "tedious". In a 1641 letter to his father, Henry Gorges, he wrote, "The greatest incomvenience (sic) of the country are the Long winters. This year the snow lay from about the 22nd of November till the first of April, the ground being never cleer...". In another letter that same year to his uncle he warned, "Winter now drawes on more feared than ever...". (Moody) And winter was indeed to be feared.
Climatologists now claim that the northern hemisphere suffered what they call the "Little Ice Age" between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries. Temperatures ran several degrees below today's averages. Scientists believe that this neoglacial event may have some connection to a severe decline in sunspot activity. Archaeologists feel that the Little Ice Age had something to do with the non-agrarian lifestyle of the eastern Abenaki. A few degrees change in temperature changes everything. (Judd)

1816: The Year Without Summer:
No study of Maine winters would be complete without Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death - the year there was no summer in an area from western Pennsylvania and New York up across Quebec to New England and the Maritimes. Large areas of northern Europe experienced similar weather conditions.
1816 began mildly enough with average to above average winter temperatures and a cool dry spring. May in northern New England was not extraordinary; frost is not abnormal into late May. Ice, frost and snow flurries were reported around the state; many areas found it too cold to plant. Blossoms on the early fruit trees froze in Warren; early sprouting corn was killed off in Norway and need to be replanted. The season appeared to be running behind time.
Things began to go undeniably bad in June. Temperatures in the first few days of June were in the seventies or even eighties; diarists and newspaper articles across New England describe the weather as "sultry". Conditions began to cool rapidly on the 5th. By the 6th, the temperature in Brunswick was recorded as 44 degrees and that was the high for the day! Cold northwest winds and snow squalls were replaced by heavy snows. Snow blanketed an area from Ontario and Montreal across upstate New York and Vermont and throughout Maine. Connecticut, eastern Massachusetts and southern New England also received measurable snowfall. Portland recorded "a plentiful fall"; most areas measured 5-6"; Madawaska had 9". Some farmers actually reported that the snow acted as an insulating factor on the field protecting crops from the bitter cold winds, sleet and ice. But for the most part, the crops and leaves on trees blackened and died; young birds froze in their nests and newly shorn sheep died of the cold. Joshua Whitman of North Turner wrote, "All travelers need great coats and mittens. I presume the oldest person now living knows of no such weather the 8th of June."
A veritable heat wave later in June was followed by wide spread frost in early July. It was now far too late to plant again. Rains in July broke a period of drought and renewed people hopes of, at least, harvesting a reasonable crop of rye, wheat and other grains. Cold was not the only problem during this year; drought took its toll as well. After a brief July respite very little rain fell in the region again until September. Brunswick report only .3 inches of rain in August. Lack of water stunted the crops further.
Frost again spread across northern New England on August 13th and 14th. Temperatures plummeted on the 20th and frost was reported throughout most of New England. Snow was sited on some mountain tops. This frost and another on the 28th finished off the corn crop.Most farmers were unable to bring in a crop of any substance that summer. Rev. William Fogg of Kittery, wrote, "No prospect of crops. Crops cut short and a heavy load of taxes." Ever fickle, Mother Nature finished off the year in almost normal weather patterns.
Unfortunately, most Mainers were largely engaged in a subsistence agricultural system. Crops went in so later that people began to despair. June frosts seriously diminished fruit harvests when blossoms froze on the trees. Many orchids were entirely barren. July frosts killed off beans cucumbers, squash and other vegetables. Hay crops were 1/3 to 1/2 the normal harvest which severely effected the numbers of animals that could be fed over the winter.Farmers found it necessary to feed their livestock birch twigs. Corn was late and eventually killed off by August frosts. Less than 10% of the total corn crop reached a harvestable stage, and most of that was of very poor quality.
With the failure of the corn crop, starvation, particularly among the poor whose diet depended on it, was a reality. Few if any crops were unaffected by the nonsummer. Prices were high, and quantities were low to nonexistent. Government intervention was necessary. The government of New Brunswick found it necessary to provide food for their destitute constituents and, while doing so, included the isolated and needy Americans in Houlton.
Mainers were discouraged by the cold decade, and 1816 was the proverbial straw the broke the camel's back. Many people left the farms for the city and factory jobs. Others were attracted by advertisements for fertile lands and a warmer climate in Ohio and the (old) North West territories. Individuals, families and whole communities packed up and moved out of Maine. The exodus is estimated as high as fifteen thousand people. Growth in Maine was stunted; business and property values suffered severe setbacks.
There are a number of potential theories for the weird weather. The period between 1812 and 1818 was remarkably cold to begin with. June or August frosts are not exceptional in northern New England; the real exception was that 1816 had killing frosts in every single month of the year. One theory blames low sunspot numbers. Some climatologists claim that low numbers of sunspots effect the amount of radiation released by the sun and can cause lower temperatures on Earth. The most popular and debated theory concerns volcanic activity in the period between 1812 and 1816. The most notable eruption was that of Tambora in Indonesia in 1815. It was the most violent recorded in historic times and put 150 to 180 cubic kilometers of debris into the atmosphere. (The famous 1883 eruption of Krakatau discharged only 20 cubic kilometers.) The theory is that the debris blocks the rays of the sun, darkens the sky and lowers the earth's temperature. Scientists debate whether the connection between a volcanic explosion in the southern hemisphere and bad weather in the northern hemisphere is practical or a folk tale explanation. Krakatoa did effect sunsets around the world for years, but 1816 seems to be the climax of a bad siege of weather and not the beginning of a volcanic effect. (NASA) The years immediately after the Year With No Summer where increasingly normal. However, the volcanic theory has a lot of exotic appeal, and a good argument can keep you warm on a cold winter night.


The photos on this page were taken by Marion Post Wolcott in Fryeburg, Maine in March 1940 for the Farm Security Adminstration. These and others in the series can be found at the Library of Congress at American Memory

The Numbers Game: 

(Please be advised that this piece was written in 2000 and the data is not as up to date as it could be a decade or more out.)
Nineteenth century diaries and letters provide a great source of information on weather in the days before the National Weather Bureau. Officially, weather tables were kept at the Portland Observatory from 1825 to 1857. The lowest recorded temperature (-25 below zero) at the observatory was on January 24, 1857. The lowest mean temperature for any month was 13 degrees above in January of 1844 while the average for January-February-March was 21.93 degrees. Rain and snow (reduced to water) amounted to 48.55 inches in 1858. (Willis)
Maybe we do exaggerate Maine winters just a bit. Modern statistics prove that we do not actually live in the home of the country's worst winters. A survey of temperature and snowfall stats across the northern boundary of the US can substantiate this; we don't even need to look at Alaska! Caribou has a respectably cold average January temperature of about 10.6 degrees (and quite occasionally shows up as the "nation's coldest spot" on a winter day), but this pales when compared to averages in International Falls, MN of .1 and Fargo, ND at 4.3 degrees. Portland is far behind at 21.5. Actually the coldest temperature (not an average but a single bad time in history) ever recorded in the lower 48 was -69.7 at Rogers Pass, in Lewis and Clark County, Montana, on Jan. 20, 1954. Burr!
As for average annual snowfall, Maine has a very respectable accumulation. Coastal locations average between 60 and 75 inches while inland locations like Caribou (120") and Millinocket (123") tip the scales. This hardly takes the grand prize when compared to Alaska, the Rockies or even upstate New York's lake effect snow accumulation. We have our moments. Here's a little comparative data gleaned from Sperling’s

While Maine's northern most cities and towns regularly average over 100" of snow per year, Southern Maine has its years of heavy snow as well. Thirteen times in a little over one hundred years Portland recorded average annual snowfalls of over 100". At the other end of the spectrum are the "open winters" or those years when there is very little snow.


An examination of some of these big snowfall seasons in the last 50 years reveals some interesting material. For example, the winter of 1951-2 just barely makes the list at 105". Interestingly, one quarter of the season's snow fell in a single storm known as the Blizzard of '52. 25.4 inches of snow fell in Portland on February 17-18 crippling traffic and just about all other activities besides shoveling for several days. Old photos of this storm show snow bankings man high. Pretty impressive!

In the 1960's, two 100" plus years occurred with only one year in between. These are closer together than any previous record years. Two things kept the winter of 1966-67 from being a mediocre year. First was the whopping 45.8" of snow in February, and second was an unusually high amount for April of 15.7 ". 1968-69 had a deceptively low snowfall of only 5.4" in January. Then February blind sided Portland. Two storms early in the month accounted for 9.3" and 21.5" respectively. Formidable by themselves, these storms were followed on February 24-27th by a 100 hour storm with 40 mph winds that dropped 26.9". In the end, February's count of 61.2" totaled 56% of the years 110" of snow! What a month!
All other years pale beside the winter of 1970-71, the snowiest on record in Greater Portland. There was no snow in November, but by Christmas there was 39" on the ground. A very white Christmas, in deed. There were only 17.2" of new snow in January. However, winter had something else with which to occupy us; the temperature on sixteen of the thirty one days was below zero. Eight days ranged between -5 and -26. Portland Harbor froze over! Mother Nature dumped 35.6" of snow in February and 24.7 in March. By April 6th there was less than an inch of snow left, but Mother Nature is cruel. On the 7th, Portland was hit with a 14 hour storm that dumped another 8.7". Grand total for the winter: 141.5". What a YEAR! ( data compiled from Mailhot website

The back end of our saltbox house on March 24, 2001, 4 days into spring.

2000-2001 Update:

Winter 2000-1 is worthy of an update to our little article on Maine winters. It chalks up a respectable record as the 15th snowiest winter in 120 years! However it falls just short of the 100 club with 99.3 inches.

December chalked up 18.8" with 11" falling on the last two days of the month. Only the day before we were walking at Porter's Preserve on Barter's Island. The trails were virtually snowless and the temperature was balmy. Mailhot records this as the biggest single storm since 1995. Just the beginning.

January was nice - only 15.5" of fluffy stuff. February was a rough 24.2" total in Portland with higher amounts in the western mountains.14.2 fell on the 5th and 6th alone. This storm ran as high as 2 feet in the Farmington area with the western foothills not so far behind. March was the real killer weighing in at 40.5"! The lion roared in on the 5th and 6th with a blizzard including 16.5" of snow (again, this is only the figure for Portland), 50-60 mile an hour winds, and coastal flooding from high tides and storm surges. Just the beginning of a real doozy of a month!

And what about 2001-2002? We don't need to wait for the stats to know that this is quite a different winter. Maine is in the clutches of a different weather pattern this year - drought.

Sources: Gavin, Ron. "Winter's harsh endurance test brings out Maine's best qualities." Maine Sunday Telegram, 13December 1992, pp1 and 16A.
Heidorn, Keith C."Eighteen Hundred and Froze To Death: The Infamous Year Without A Summer". The Weather Doctor. July 1, 2000. .
Judd, Richard W. et. al. Maine: the Pine Tree State from Prehistory to the Present. Orono: UM Press, 1995.
Mailhot, Marc P."Snowfall Discussion and Chronological Listing For Portland, Maine 1950-2000." Westbrook, ME: EMA Storm Coordination Center, 2000.
Moody, Robert E., ed. The letters of Thomas Gorges.. Portland, ME: Maine Historical Society, 1978.
Rich, Louis Dickinson. The Coast of Maine. New York: T.Y. Crowell Co., 1956.
Rolfe, Eldred. A Geography of Maine . Fourth edition. University of Maine at Farmington. n.d.
Willis, William. History of Portland from 1632 to 1864 . Portland, ME: Baily & Noyes, 1865.
"The Year Without a Summer: Was Tambora responsible?" .

c2000, 2002 Pat Higgins

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