MADAWASKA, Maine — Though many New Englanders are used to seeing high amounts of snow, Maine is second in the nation for average snowfall, beating Alaska by more than a foot.
Vermont has the highest average snowfall in the United States at 89.25 inches, according to the rankings listed at usa.com. But with a higher elevation of 1,000 feet compared with Maine’s 600, this is not a surprise.
What is surprising is that Maine still gets an average of 77.25 inches compared with other New England states that are more mountainous — despite its lower elevation — and outshines even Alaska, which sees about 64.46 inches of snowfall per year.
During a time when traditional weather patterns are reforming around the world due to climate change, Maine can thank Aroostook County for pushing the state’s winter statistics into the history books. The records for earliest snowfall ( Sept. 29, 1991, Caribou) and latest snowfall (May 27, 1994, Fort Kent) were observed out of the National Weather Service station in Caribou.
But not only does Aroostook set Maine apart from most other states, it also has weather peculiarities within the county because the northernmost areas are influenced by the Canadian landscape and the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Maine’s northernmost point, Escourt Station, is 2 degrees lower than the northernmost point in the contiguous United States — Angle Inlet, Minnesota — and 27 degrees lower than Point Barrow, Alaska, which is the overall northernmost point in the United States.
For those places in the Midwest that have seen snowfall outside of the winter season as early as July, elevation is a major factor, according to an infographic by climate.gov. Where Caribou sits at only 449 feet above sea level, Climax, Colorado, sits at 11,360 feet.
Maine typically sees its first snowfall around mid-October, easily a month before Boston.
Aroostook County is quite large — larger in land area than Connecticut — and the farther north you go, the longer winter seems to stick around. The St. John Valley often sees snow from October through late April, sometimes even into mid-May, leaving roughly 5 months of warm weather for spring, summer and fall to make their annual rotation.
It’s because of this that anytime a map of Maine is shown during any time but summer, snow should span the St. John Valley area, said Gerald Fongemie with the St. John Valley Chamber of Commerce.
“Like a snowcap,” Fongemie said.
It isn’t just winter that sets northern Aroostook apart from other places in Maine. The spanning hillsides and north-facing slopes of the St. John Valley, plus the mountainous terrain and farmlands in the western part of the Province of Quebec, can have a great influence over the changing weather conditions in the valley, according to meteorologist Matt Strauser at the National Weather Service in Caribou.
Aroostook County, which is landlocked, is just north enough to be away from the influence of the Atlantic Ocean, but close enough to feel some influence from the St. Lawrence Seaway, Strauser said.The more marine air mass tends to be a bit warmer in Down East Maine and stabilizes the atmosphere, he said.
“That doesn’t get up here quite as much and it really doesn’t get up to the St. John Valley quite as much,” Strauser said. “You get a lot more continental air, which means basically more variation so it could be very warm one day and a little cooler another day, whereas the places that are more influenced by the marine environment tend to be a little more stable in terms of temperature, not quite as variable as the St. John Valley which is more continental.”
In addition, the data collected by bestplaces.net shows that on average Aroostook County has 159 sunny days per year compared with the national average of 205 days.
Given the St. John Valley’s tendency toward wildly changing weather, let it be no surprise when a spring storm brings 4-8 inches of fresh snow to northern Aroostook, only for it to disappear shortly after, just as it did on April 28, 2022.
The variable nature of the valley’s atmosphere allows for rare occurrences of tornadoes too. A total of 80 tornadoes have been reported in Maine since 1950, 10 of which were considered significant — at least a level 2 on the Enhanced Fujita scale (111 to 135 mile per hour winds) or higher, according to meteorologist Stephen Baron from the National Weather Service in Gray.
Three of those 80 tornadoes have hit the St. John Valley in the last 25 years: July 19, 1997, a small tornado rated EF0 hit Fort Kent; another EF0 hit Long Lake May 15, 2007, and on May 24, 2009, a tornado rating EF1 hit just west of Eagle Lake, Strauser said. According to this infographic at homefacts.com, at least one tornado in the St. John Valley was considered significant in 1958 when an EF2 struck Allagash on Aug. 15.