Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Life At 50 Below In Alaska: The Effects Of The January 2012 Deep Cold Outbreak On Fairbanks And Interior Alaska

Dominating the weather news in Alaska is an extended outbreak of deep cold during the past two weeks. While South Central Alaska has experienced some effects, with Anchorage dropping below zero every night with only two exceptions from January 13-30, the REAL cold has wrapped its frosty hands around Interior Alaska. The National Weather Service notes that January 2012 will be the coldest on record for Nome, Galena, and Bettles.; on Saturday January 28th, five stations reported temperatures of -60F or colder, while on Sunday, seven stations breached the -60F mark, topped by Fort Yukon with -65F. For Fairbanks, this January could be the fifth coldest on record.

And Fairbanks has an additional complication. Because of its valley location, strong inversions, and the amount of particulate matter pumped into the air, they get ice fog. A video posted by Fairbanks photographer Eric Muehling shows a time lapse of the ice fog progession along with a small inset showing what it's like to drive in it. The video was shot from Farmers Loop road north-northeast of downtown Fairbanks; Farmer's Loop is in the foothills north of town, about 300 feet or so higher in elevation (see reference map HERE). Thus he can see above the inversion, and the video shows the plume from the power plant near UAF in downtown Fairbanks.


But life goes on, as much as possible. On Saturday January 28th, when a fire broke out in North Pole, firefighters from throughout the Fairbanks/North Star Borough responded even though the temperatures dropped to -60F. Fire Chief Jeff Tucker said, “Equipment freezes, pump freeze, people freeze”, although the Tanana Valley American Red Cross responded to the fire with a warm vehicle and warm drinks for the firefighters.

Police stay busy as well. On Friday January 27th, Alaska State Troopers found two unattended children in a black Mercury sedan stuck in a ditch on Chena Point Road at Dolphin Way in Fairbanks. Inside the vehicle were a 3-year-old and 4-year-old, one dressed in a tank top and shorts, the other in a diaper; outside the vehicle, the temperature was -28F. The investigation ultimately revealed that the mother, 25-year-old Kristin Smith, became stuck in the ditch and left the children in the vehicle while she walked a quarter mile to her husband’s home. There, she took some prescription medication and fell asleep, never returning to the vehicle. She has been charged with two counts of endangering the welfare of a child as well as misdemeanor counts of reckless endangerment.

It's unthinkable to be homeless in Fairbanks when the temperature drops to -50F, which is why the Fairbanks Rescue Mission is experiencing an overflow. The shelter, which can provide beds for 140 men and 60 women, is currently housing 175 men, 40 women and 15 children. A growing percentage are males in the 18 to 24 age group, who can be disrespectful and aggressive. Many are those who came north for higher-wage jobs, but who found themselves overwhelmed by Fairbanks' higher cost of living. The shelter is over 70 percent donor-funded, and Fairbanksans have been generous.

The extreme cold also leaves no margin of error for vehicles left outside; if a block heater fails or if a battery gets too old, you'll need a tow. Badger Towing reports the number of tows has tripled since the cold snap began. Downtown Tire and Auto reports their business is up 50 percent. And Ralph Huyck, a service adviser at Seekins Ford, said the dealership, which normally services 20 to 30 vehicles a day, serviced 110 vehicles on January 16th alone.

But this post ends on a more pleasant note. A resident of Kotzebue who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints posted her thoughts about Kotzebue, which she characterizes as "extremely cold and incredibly beautiful", on Segullah. She says her husband loves Kotzebue in the winter, "even the frostbitten cheeks after chopping down the Christmas tree on a 24-mile roundtrip snow machine ride and having to pay $10.99 for a gallon of milk at the one grocery store in town. Kotzebue is strangely exotic for him because it’s so shockingly different from anything else he’s known." What makes Kotzebue special for her is the fact that she was baptized a member of the LDS Church there. The LDS Church does have a branch in Kotzebue, which meets at 5th and Alice; it is assigned to the Anchorage Alaska Chugach Stake.

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