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Report From Fairbanks: Life at 50 Below Is Not a Pretty Picture

February 05, 1989|Andy Williams | Andy Williams, editorial-page editor for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, has lived in Fairbanks since 1976

FAIRBANKS, ALASKA — Most people think hell is hot. If they had spent the last three weeks in Fairbanks, they would think differently.

For most of the winter, Fairbanks is a nice little town. Nestled in a river valley in the heart of Alaska's interior, it is sheltered from the winds that make the cold in this part of the country seem much colder.

Daylight diminishes to less than four hours at the end of December, but accelerates during most of January and February at six or seven minutes a day. By the middle of February, with more than eight hours of daylight, the sun has safely returned. The crisp blue sky, the shadowed spruce forests, the snow and the air can make an outing at 10 below seem like heaven.

But for a few weeks most every winter, a misery comes to town.

Thirty below is about the limit at which humans can function without experiencing major difficulties. Above 30 below, accommodations can be made. Below it, things start breaking down. Oil companies on the North Slope shut down most of their machinery at 35 below, and in Fairbanks, an ugly phenomenon occurs.

Ice fog is the name given to the haze that develops when ice crystals form around particles from auto exhaust, chimney smoke and other pollutants. An inversion clamps onto Fairbanks when the weather is cold, locking pollutants under a layer of warmer air; 500 feet up, the air is clear and the temperature may be 20 degrees warmer, but at the surface the particles congeal into an impenetrable mass. As the temperature goes down, the ice fog gets worse.

At 50 below, Fairbanks is a city under siege. Abandoned automobiles litter shrouded streets. An occasional pedestrian passes through a tunnel of fog along Second Avenue, the "Two Street" of pipeline days, hunched over and grimacing in a thick parka. The only other signs of life are a couple of ravens digging at a garbage bag in the back of a pickup truck.

People who live in Fairbanks--more than 50,000 in the immediate area--know what to expect. The lowest temperature ever recorded was 66 below in 1934. Until the last 10 years, stretches of 50 below occurred most every winter. Cars have circulating heaters and battery warmers and, if properly attended, will usually start. Houses are designed with circulating water outlets and insulated pipes. The utilities are usually reliable. People dress warmly.

In the past 10 years, however, temperatures have been getting progressively warmer. Fairbanks hadn't seen 30 below in the last three years. People who accepted the "greenhouse effect" half expected they had seen the last of the misery.

They were wrong. On Jan. 17, a zone of high pressure that had been forming over Siberia moved in and temperatures started falling. For the next six days, lows ranged close to 50 below and never rose above 40 below. The seventh day brought a respite as a storm from the Gulf of Alaska nudged in enough to raise the temperature to a balmy 34 below. The next day, it was back down to minus 48. The cold peaked at 52 below on Jan. 29 before the high-pressure zone began to spin south toward Canada and the rest of the United States.

The cold was deadly. A Canadian C-130 crashed at Fort Wainwright last Sunday when the weather was at its coldest, killing eight soldiers arriving for a military exercise. Ice fog had lowered visibility at the runway to a reported 800 feet.

Elsewhere, some families bailed out of their homes when heating systems failed and moved in with friends. Cars died by the hundreds. School was canceled for two days and most government workers got some time off. Plumbers, mechanics and fuel-oil distributors kept busy.

A teen-ager who walked to a friend's house in a pair of worn-out sneakers at 30 below was hospitalized with frostbite. She had refused to wear a pair of boots her mother had recommended because they weren't "cool."

In general, people took the cold in stride. A community draws closer together at 50 below and a sense of sharing prevails. Two weeks of ice fog bring a numbing weariness of mind, but the psychotic episodes of cabin fever usually come later when spring is in the air.

Fairbanks got off easy. In what was described as the coldest weather system to reach Alaska in memory, the lowest official recording was 76 below at Tanana, about 125 miles west of Fairbanks. An unofficial 82 below was recorded at Coldfoot, about 250 miles north. The U.S. Weather Service recognizes 80 below as the lowest temperature ever recorded in Alaska, on Jan. 23, 1971, at Prospect Creek near Coldfoot on the pipeline.

The colder communities also accommodated the subzero siege. Many ran low on food and fuel as air service stopped, but schools served as community shelters and a state of emergency declared by the governor proved unnecessary. Most of the villages are Indian or Eskimo and are well-adapted to cold weather.

By Wednesday, the worst was over. Lingering ice fog remained, but the sun was rapidly burning it off. People began to appear on the streets, retrieving frozen cars. The noon temperature was 29 below and rising. The misery was over for another year; the world seemed warm and secure.

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