Skip to main content

Alaska is still good at making cold

Moments after bashing some drywall with a hammer to expose my home’s water pipes to warmer air, I logged in to see another Special Weather Statement.

A meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks wrote: “After a brief ‘warm-up’ from the bitterly cold temperatures recently, another prolonged cold-snap will return to the Interior.

“Valley locations will fall back to -40 F to -50 F . . . for overnight lows, with high temps struggling to warm much beyond -30 F.

“Residents should prepare as needed for yet another old-fashioned Interior Alaska cold snap.”

This frigid situation is not unusual, according to Rick Thoman, a climate specialist for the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“This is not record cold,” he said after sharing a graphic he made showing impressive minuses all over Alaska during the past week. “Not a single climate station with at least 30 years of observations set even one daily record low.”

My friend Chris Swingley confirmed that this cold — though breathtaking — was not the most extreme he has recorded at his home on Goldstream Creek in Fairbanks. Readings on his thermometer are usually the coldest on a network of Fairbanks temperatures he compiles on his website. As I write this, Chris’ home is at minus 49.1 degrees F.

He recorded a minus 52 a few days ago, falling just short of his record, minus 53.3 on Jan. 29, 2012.

“Last week’s cold snap was the second-coldest since we moved here more than 15 years ago,” he wrote in an email.

Even though no records have yet fallen, it seemed chilly as I watched willow twigs shatter in the mouths of a mother and yearling calf moose outside our window at home.

And as ravens perched with bare feet on metal light poles chilled to minus 40 (accomplished with their adaptation of “countercurrent heat exchange,” in which vessels allow blood flowing down to their feet to warm the blood coming back to their hearts).

As I edit this on the morning of Feb. 1, 2024, another peek at weather stations around Alaska shows that the current temperature at the village of Tanana — located at the junction of the Tanana and Yukon rivers — is minus 54.4 F.

Where does this cold air come from, in this time when our planet seems to be in an extreme warming phase?

“We manufactured (this cold air) right here in Alaska,” Thoman wrote in an email. “Very cold low pressure aloft moved from west to east across the Beaufort Sea January 23-24, but as it did some of the energy of that system broke off and moved out over mainland Alaska.”

Deep cold air is sort of reassuring. At the same time, it is somewhat exhausting to keep our machines and homes functioning.

Complain as we might when that car door won’t shut, many of us, for reasons that might be hard to remember, have chosen to live in a place that is really good at making its own cold.