‘Unprecedented’ cold is breaking records, putting even winter-hardy Mainers in a deep freeze

LEWISTON — Dave Marquis knows cold.

He’s a born and bred Mainer, the owner of a construction company and a construction worker.

At 55, he’s seen his share of Maine winters. On job sites this time of year, he dresses in layers: snow pants over sweatpants, three shirts, thick socks, good gloves, a parka and boots that are rated for minus 40 degrees.

But he and his two-man crew have worked just five days in the past two weeks, mostly because it’s been too frigid to be on the job.

“At some point, there isn’t enough clothing,” Marquis said. 

Around the state, Mainers are on their second week of below-freezing temperatures and dangerous wind chills, broken only by two days with temps reaching the 20s — one of them during a blizzard.


And it isn’t expected to get much better long-term.

“It’s too much for too long a period of time,” Marquis said. “I’ve never seen it like this.”

The National Weather Service in Gray this week said Dec. 27 through Jan. 2 was the coldest stretch in Portland since records began in 1940, with seven days in a row of temperatures at or below 15 degrees. Heating degrees — the average number of degrees the temperature stays below 65 — hovered between 57 and 68 during that time, at least 20 degrees greater than normal.

Portland broke no fewer than seven records that week, including on Dec. 28, 29 and 30, when the high temperature for those days didn’t go above 12 degrees.

Portland also broke a record low on Jan. 1, when it hit minus 17. That was nothing compared to some surrounding towns. On Jan. 1, Lisbon recorded minus 29. Fryeburg was minus 30.

Saturday was one of the coldest days of the season, with lows hitting minus 19 in Lewiston at night. With wind chill, the real feel was below minus 30.


To put that in perspective, Lewiston should be seeing lows around 11 degrees and highs in the upper 20s. That’s a 30- to 40-degree difference. 

The National Weather Service in Gray said that a new record was set Saturday for a cold high. The previous record of 10 degrees from 1959 was beat by Saturday’s high of 4 degrees. 

Saturday’s low temperatures in the morning were minus 14 in Lewiston and minus 3 in Portland. 

Eric Sinsabaugh, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray, blames the protracted cold on a stubborn jet stream pattern spilling cold air into the eastern part of the United States. It’s become a common sight for Maine weather-watchers. 

“We’ve seen these stretches of cold several times over the past five years or so,” Sinsabaugh said

While it may seem counterintuitive, he blames global warming.


“Some of the latest studies out are finding a strong correlation between the loss of Arctic sea ice and that particular jet stream pattern,” he said. “There are still a lot of questions to be answered, but it’s not good news for us in the Northeast here. We’re right at the end of that sewer pipe.”

We’ll get a short reprieve. Temperatures are expected to rise next week — to freezing or just above. 

“So there’s some light at the end of the tunnel. Let’s just hope it’s not a train,” Sinsabaugh said.

He doesn’t see any true, long-term warm-up until that jet stream pattern changes. And it’s not showing any sign of doing that.

“It could break down for a week or two,” he said, “but, unfortunately, it’s stuck.”

That means Mainers are stuck, too. Some literally.


Since Christmas, AAA Northern New England has averaged 4,000 to 8,000 calls a day in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. That’s three to four times average volume this time of year.

“It’s been unprecedented,” spokesman Patrick Moody said. “‘Extremely busy’ would be an understatement.”

Most of those calls have been cold-weather related: dead batteries, low tires, keys accidentally locked in cars that are warming up. 

“There are just so, so many calls coming through right now,” he said.

Depending on the location, it’s taking AAA drivers a couple of hours or longer to respond to calls. It usually takes 30 to 45 minutes.

AAA contractors are working virtually nonstop, pausing only to eat, sleep and deal with their own vehicles. To help with the onslaught, AAA is sending out any employee trained to jump-start a car or provide roadside assistance, even if they have desk jobs.


“It’s all hands on deck,” Moody said.

Oil dealers have struggled to keep up with demand, too, as homeowners rapidly burn through heating fuel to keep warm. Many dealers are scheduling delivery dates two weeks away, at the earliest.

Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association and a former oil dealer, called the past two weeks of temperatures “unprecedented — I’ve never seen this sort of degree-day usage.”

Py urged people to keep vents shoveled for safety, driveways cleared for easier delivery and suggested oil customers sign up for automatic delivery or be vigilant about calculating their usage under Maine’s varying temperatures — something oil dealers can do for their automatic delivery customers, he said.

He acknowledged the challenge is not oil supply, but rather servicing the tremendous demand arising over the past two weeks.

That demand has led some frantic residents to call local police for help.


“Some of it’s poor planning on their part, or limited funds that they have,” said Lt. David St. Pierre of the Lewiston Police Department, which received five calls in two days this week. “(Homeowners say,) ‘Well, I can only afford 100 gallons right now’ and they deliver 100 gallons. … It’s so cold out and they’ve got their temperature up to 75 (degrees). All of the sudden they’re out of oil already.”

Police typically refer residents to social service agencies or the local General Assistance program. They’ll often suggest people stay with friends or family or at a local shelter until their heating problem can be resolved. 

In emergencies that can’t be solved any other way, Lewiston police have a small fund to pay for a short stay in a hotel room.

“It’s very limited what we can do,” St. Pierre said.  

To help in Auburn, the Hasty Community Center at the Auburn Recreation Department planned to be open all weekend, including Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Residents can stop by during those hours to warm up, charge cellphones and other electronics, shower and fill water jugs.

The Maine Emergency Management Agency maintains a list of warming stations throughout the state. For more information, go to www.maine.gov/mema/mema_masscare.shtml.


The extended cold has also produced plenty of broken pipes and chimney fires, scrambling plumbers and firefighters alike.

But the cold hasn’t been a problem for everyone.

Backwoods, a snowboard and skateboard shop in Auburn, has been doing a good business in ski and snowboard accessories, including ski wear and face masks.

Owner Jeremy Petrocelli believes fewer people may hit the slopes in the cold, but some hardy souls will ski or snowboard no matter what.

“We’ve had people in here all day today who are getting ready for tomorrow and Saturday, when it’s supposed to be very, very cold and windy,” he said Thursday, during the blizzard.   

A snowboarder himself, Petrocelli called the weather “great.”


Still, he said, “It’s colder than it needs to be.”


“Nuts” is how Vickie Deschenes of Auburn describes the recent cold weather. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Cindy Neff bundles up during Thursday’s storm in Lewiston. (Daryn Slover/Sun Jornal)

The sign at Auburn Savings Bank in Auburn registers minus 4 on Friday night. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Christine Edwards is blasted with a cold gust of wind as she makes her way up Sabattus Street in Lewiston Saturday morning on her nearly 2-mile walk from the YMCA in Auburn where she worked out back to her house in Lewiston. “It’s what I live for! It’s cold, but I’m a Mainer. Dressed up in layers and I’m good to go!.” she said as she pulled her scarf tight and continued on her merry way. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)


Cold-weather advice

• Start your car and let it run for 15 to 20 minutes, even if you don’t plan to drive it that day. Subzero temps can sap 60 to 70 percent of a battery’s power and a cold engine requires more power to start it, according to AAA.

• Pack a cold-weather emergency kit for your car in case you’re stranded. You should always have, at least, blankets, a heavy jacket, gloves, boots and a cellphone charger, “things that can help you stay safe while you’re waiting for help to arrive,” AAA spokesman Patrick Moody said.

• Dress in layers when you go out. Look for boots, jackets and other gear that are rated for subzero temperatures.

• Do not use portable heaters in places or ways they aren’t supposed to be used. Don’t leave stove burners on and unattended in an effort to warm the house.