Colder than Mars


The Fairbanks cold snap of ’08/Wikimedia Commons

Livengood, Alaska – pronounced lie-ven-good – wasn’t living so good on Thursday.

At 9:20 that morning, the temperature was 57 degrees below zero, and sunrise was still about an hour away. 

The high temperature the day before was 41 degrees below zero. It came during the brief, 6-hour window from noon to late afternoon when the mercury in the thermometer crept above minus-50 before falling back.

The average temperature for the day was colder than on Mars, where the rover Curiousity recorded a high of 30 degrees and an overnight low of minus 98.

The rover near the Martian equator was blessed with more than 12 hours of sunshine. Livengood was destined to get just a little over 5 hours.

Yes, it would have been nicer to be on Mars on Thursday than to be in Livengood. No, this is not fake news. This is frozen Alaska, the “White Silence” of which Jack London wrote, the land of the “cursed cold” as poet Robert W. Service observed in “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” a northern classic.

Yes, there is a reason the Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks says on its web page today that “We Need Your Prayers! Alaska can be an inhospitable place. Our priests and other ministers often travel between several villages in inclimate weather….”

When temperatures hit 20- and 30-below in the Midwest in 2013, ABC News warned of a “dangerous situation,” and the governor of Minnesota ordered schools canceled statewide. When temperatures hit 20- to 30-below in Interior Alaska, it’s the start of a warm up.

Livengood was not alone in its otherworldly average temps on Thursday. Bettles on the south slope of the Brooks Range was a 56 degrees below zero  as was Tanana in the Interior at the confluence of the Yukon and Tanana rivers. It was 53 below in Nenana to the south of Tanana and 51 below in Huslia to the west.

Fairbanks, the largest city in the Interior, had warmed up to minus-43 with freezing fog and mist or what Alaskans simply call “ice fog.” Ned Rozell, a writer for the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute once described this as a phenomenon that “transforms Fairbanks into a fuzzy dream world pierced only by bright lights.”

The transformation is largely the result of hot water dumped from a Fairbanks power plant into the Chena river, automobile exhausts, and the breath of people, dogs and even moose. All of these sources release warm, moisture-laden air into an environment so cold it can’t absorb the moisture.

“When water vapor exits a car tailpipe when it’s minus 40, for example, the water vapor temperature drops from about 250 degrees to minus 40 in less than 10 seconds. Water cooled that fast forms tiny ice particles, so small that ten of them could fit side by side on the finger-cutting edge of a piece of paper. Collectively, millions of these particles take form as ice fog, the cotton candy-like clouds that hang over our roads,” Rozell wrote.

It sounds rather exotic doesn’t it? Sort of like living on Mars.


1 reply »

  1. Great piece Craig – interesting, informative and accurate. A great reminder of the caution, care and compassion we need to share during winter travel and outdoor activity. Thanks.

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