Utah may be in a heat wave, but it is home to one of the coldest places in the country

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Courtesy: Utah Geological Survey

LOGAN, Utah (ABC4) – If you’re sick of the record-breaking heatwave Utah has been experiencing this week, it may be time to visit this Utah location known for its record-breaking cold.

On February 1, 1985, Peter Sinks, a collection of sink holes in the Bear River Range, made history.

The temperature of the area that day registered at -69.3 degrees Fahrenheit, the second coldest recorded temperature in the contiguous United States, according to Utah Geological Survey, UGS. Rogers Pass, Montana holds the record for the coldest recorded temperature, but the difference between the two is half a degree.

And though Peter Sinks can experience a wide range of temperatures which fluctuate quickly (according to UGS, the area can experience a nearly 30 degree change in just nine minutes), it is frequently cold even in the midst of summer. In fact, vegetation in the bowl consist mainly of shrubs since it’s too cold for trees to grow.

Photos courtesy of Utah Geological Survey

But what allows this Utah location to experience sometimes arctic temperatures?

According to Dr. Jim Davis, geologist at Utah Geological Survey, the cold temperatures have to do with elevation, dry air, and topography of the region.

Peter Sinks is a basin that stretches roughly two miles long and half a mile wide and is located 2,000 feet above upper Logan Canyon. It is made up of two connected depressions made by multiple sink holes which are surrounded by ridges that reach hundreds of feet above the low point of the basin, according to UGS.

The rocks found in the sinks – limestone and dolomite – are easily weathered, which creates large cavities and sink holes. In the case of Peter Sinks, the holes are hundreds of feet deep.

Peter Sinks is a closed-basin, which means air can become trapped inside. The area’s high elevation means that the air is often cold and dry, which is the heaviest type of air. In other words, an inversion, much like those experienced along the Wasatch Front and Cache Valley in the winter, occurs.

“… so on calm, windless nights it (the air) collects in the closed basin of Peter Sinks (called “cold air pooling”) and outlandish temperatures can be achieved. Temperature swings are amazing, too,” Davis tells ABC4. 

“Because winds tend to pick up during the day with solar heating and die down at night, the daytime temperatures can be pretty similar to the “out of the bowl” temperatures, but on calm nights, the temperature differences are huge,” he adds.

John Meyer, climate scientist at the Utah Climate Center, says there are some factors that create perfect conditions for extreme temperatures to occur.

“During the wintertime when we get snow cover up there, and then if we have high pressure that sets up, bringing clear skies and light winds, you can get cold air that settles into the middle of Peter Sinks,” he explains. “You get a couple of days of that in a row and you can hit incredibly cool temperatures with pretty astonishing temperature gradients from the rim to the bottom. In just a couple of 100 feet elevation difference, you can see 30 or 40 degrees temperature difference.”

And Peter Sinks may yet hold the record for coldest temperature in the continental United States, Meyer says.

“My guess is if we would have had a weather station there for more of the 20th century, we would probably hold the record for coldest temperature in the continental United States. We just haven’t had a station there for long enough,” he states.

Peter Sinks was discovered by a Utah State University graduate student, Zane Stephens, in the mid-80s, Meyer tells ABC4.

“He intuitively understood that that kind of sink or depression way up top of the high elevations, would be a perfect place for cold air to pool. And so based on that intuition, they put up weather stations in the middle. And we’ve only been recording temperatures since I think 1983, 1984…”

Meyer says he expects that heat wave Utah is currently experiencing will also mean Peter Sinks will experience record-breaking warm temperatures for the area.

“It will be of course cooler up there than at the lower elevations, but my guess is if we went back in the record books, and looked for early June heat waves, Peter sinks right now would most likely be threatening records are right up against it.”

Visit usu.edu to view the temperature of Peter Sinks on any given day.

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