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Alaska Beat

Recalling the coldest (-80 degrees) day in American history

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published January 24, 2013

The Alaska office of the National Weather Service notes that Wednesday was the 42nd anniversary of what's officially coldest day in American history – the minus-80 degrees F reading at Alaska's Prospect Creek Camp.

The record low temperature was captured by a weather observer at the Alaska pipeline construction camp near the confluence of Prospect Creek and the Jim River, which is about 180 miles north of Fairbanks, according to the Weather Service. Prospect Creek Camp was located at the bottom of a valley near the start of the winter road to Bettles. Today, Pump Station 5 along the trans-Alaska pipeline is located where Prospect Creek Camp was in the 1970s.

During construction of the pipeline, a camp was set up near Prospect Creek in 1974 to help house some of the thousands of people working on construction. The camp contained little more than housing and washrooms. After the pipeline was completed in 1977 the camp was broken down and abandoned.

It takes lots of insulation to survive those temperatures, but as Alaska Dispatch science columnist Ned Rozell notes, some species can survive such brutal temperatures naked. The red flat bark beetle hunkers down for winter in the moist area between trees and their dead bark. Todd Sformo, a biologist with the North Slope Borough in Alaska, has cooled beetles to minus-94 degrees F in the lab, and they survived.

"They really have to be under that leaf litter and under the snow (for insulation from the cold air)," Sformo told Rozell.

On Wednesday, the Jim River Department of Transportation station (the closest to the old Prospect Creek site) was comparatively balmy, hitting just minus-22 at 12:10 p.m., according to the weather service.

There have been unofficial measures of even lower temperatures, and some fans of the National Weather Service Alaska website noted a few of them. Phil Schaefer said it was minus-84 in Coldfoot in 1989. Joe Cochran noted that the temperature at the Hughes school hit minus-85 sometime during the 1990s.

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