LAKE CLEAR - Call it Saranac Lake's frigid little secret.
Every time WPTZ-TV weatherman Tom Messner looks at his map and points to Saranac Lake as being the coldest spot in the region, sometimes the coldest in the nation, that spot is actually not Saranac Lake.
The temperature Messner and other forecasters are giving, like last week's low of minus 32, is recorded at the National Weather Service automated weather station at the Adirondack Regional Airport in Lake Clear, where it's typically much colder than it is 4 miles away in the village - sometimes 10 to 15 degrees colder.
The National Weather Service’s automated weather station, seen here on Friday, Jan. 25, is located on the side of a runway at the Adirondack Regional Airport in Lake Clear. It often records the coldest temperature in the region, sometimes the country.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
"I had 17 below in town this morning, and it was 31 below here - weird," airport worker Kyle Girouard said last week.
Sometimes the airport temperature is even significantly colder than it is just a mile-and-a-half down the road in the hamlet of Lake Clear, where Bob Callaghan lives on the lake's shore. The same morning last week that the airport weather station hit 32 below, Callaghan said he had minus 21 at his house.
"The thermometer in the car definitely registers colder when we get in the area of the airport," Callaghan said. "Sometimes it's 10 degrees difference."
Why is it so much colder near the airport? What strange weather phenomenon is at work here? Callaghan and many others who live and work in Lake Clear say it's something they've only guessed at.
"The only thing I've heard from several people who are longtime residents here is because it was lower elevation, but I'm not sure," Callaghan said.
"I've got hunches of my own," said Roger Girouard, Kyle's father and also an airport employee. "I kind of think the village generates its own heat with furnaces and different stuff. I don't know. Out here, there's nothing to protect it. It's on the edge of a swamp. The elevation may be different. Who knows?"
Dave Werner started asking the same questions a few years ago. Werner is a cooperative observer for the National Weather Service who lives in Malone.
"Every day I'd compare my readings with all of upstate New York and Vermont, sort of a sanity check on making sure everything is copacetic," he said. "It was so interesting to me that Lake Clear was so much colder than every other place."
At that time, in the winter of 2008, the weather service had an observer in the village of Saranac Lake who was also recording temperature and other weather data.
"He took the readings at 7 a.m. just like all the cooperative observers do, and I was comparing his reading with the automated system at the Lake Clear airport," Werner said. "It was showing the average low for Saranac Lake village during February '08 was 8.9 degrees versus 0.9 degrees for the Lake Clear airport. I said, 'Eight degrees on average every morning? That's a significant difference.'"
Werner contacted a meteorologist at the weather service's Burlington office and asked for an explanation.
"What the meteorologist told me is basically this: It's cold air drainage," Werner said. "The bowl-shaped terrain around the Lake Clear airport is such that cold air settles or drains into the airport area, giving it significantly colder readings than found in the village of Saranac Lake."
"It's just the way the site is located," NWS meteorologist John Goff told the Enterprise last week. "In mountainous terrain, depending on where your instrumentation is, there are warm and cold pockets, and it happens to be in a cold pocket. It's higher up, higher than the village (by roughly 100 feet), and it's an open, clear area where the cool air can kind of just pool."
Goff said the Lake Clear airport weather site is not an anomaly. He said there are likely other high mountain valleys nearby, where the weather service doesn't have equipment, that are at least as cold as Lake Clear, if not colder.
Airport Manager Corey Hurwitch drove an Enterprise reporter to the site of the NWS' automated station last week. It's located on the side of a 6,500-foot-long runway that's a three-to-four minute drive from the airport terminal. In operation since the mid 1990s, the site has a temperature and a dewpoint sensor, a barometer, an anemometer to measure wind speeds, a precipitation gauge and other equipment.
"The reason it's out here is primarily the visibility sensor for the instrument landing system," Hurwitch explains. "They aim for 1,000 feet down the runway, and at that 1,000-foot marker is where they put the weather station, so the inbound aircraft will know exactly what the visibility is going to be on touchdown."
The lowest temperature the weather station recorded last week was minus 32. Goff says that was just 5 degrees shy of the record low at the site, minus 37, which has been recorded there several times in its nearly 20-year history, most recently on Jan. 24, 2011.
The several days of bitter cold temperatures last week caused a few headaches at the airport. One of its fuel trucks, which have to be parked outside per federal regulations, wouldn't start on one of the coldest mornings, and pipes in the terminal building froze last Friday. Nevertheless, Hurwitch said they got by with no major issues.
"Cape Air (the airport's commercial passenger airline) still got out of here," he said. "They got fuel in the morning and took off, and they flew fine in it. Some of the aircraft actually like it because they get better climb performance and the aircraft perform better in the cold weather."
Airport workers like the Girouards say the cold is something they've just learned to deal with. How?
"We try to stay inside as much as possible," Roger Girouard says with a laugh. "It is what it is. You're living in the North Country; you deal with it. You could be that poor sucker that works for the village, trying to fix a water main that's down in a hole that froze and broke. This is a lot better."
Hurwitch said the extent of the cold "shocked and surprised" him when he first started working at the airport in 2008, but not anymore. He recently moved to Lake Clear from the village.
"It's OK as long as the wind isn't blowing," Hurwitch said. "When it was negative 31 the other day, the wind wasn't blowing, so it didn't feel too bad. Later on in the morning it was a little warmer by temperature, but it felt so much colder with just a little bit of a breeze out here."
What do the airport's customers think of the cold?
"They're a little bit surprised when they step off their plane sometimes, but they usually have a smile on their face and a good attitude about it," Hurwitch said. "I don't think it's a detraction. It gives us something to pride ourselves on."
Saranac Lake's reputation for often being the coldest spot in the lower 48 states has brought the community a fair share of notoriety over the years, even though that notoriety should technically be Lake Clear's. But Lake Clear residents don't seem to care about it.
"It's close enough," Callaghan said. "I know this is something they're pretty proud of. It gets the name of Saranac Lake out on the national news, and people that aren't familiar, they might look it up, find out where it is, and they'll find out there's things they might be interested in doing here."
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Editor's note: The elevation difference between the airport and the village of Saranac Lake has been corrected; the airport is roughly 100 feet higher.)