FAIRBANKS — Kathleen Collier takes the Interior Alaska cold in stride.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks ornithology student bounded north on Farmers Loop Road on Wednesday, running home from campus in minus-36-degree air. Her feet squeaked with each step on the ice-crusted bike path. This was the coldest weather the Colorado transplant had seen yet, she said.
“This is pretty new to me,” Collier said with a smile from beneath the icy rim of her blue hood. But the upbeat student has a simple strategy.
“Wear a jacket and keep moving,” she said.
Collier seems like a good fit for Fairbanks. It’s not hard to imagine that sentiment on a sign to greet visitors at the west end of Airport Way: Welcome to Fairbanks. Wear a jacket and keep moving.
There are colder places on the planet and colder places in Alaska. But perhaps no other American city pulses quite like the Golden Heart City in this weather. People still go to work and school in the city of 31,000. Cars and buses lurch through the ice fog as people keep to their schedules. Pedestrians are fewer, but not uncommon.
As of Saturday, Fairbanks had reached temperatures colder than minus 30 for nine straight days. It dipped below minus 40 at least a couple times during that period. Chances are good that the cold of this sort will continue through the weekend, according to National Weather Service forecasts.
Such air presents a real danger of frostbite and hypothermia. But Fairbanksans say if you winterize your car, dress appropriately, mind your fingers and toes and don’t let the tip of your nose change color, you can go about your day. Many are quick to point out that temperatures approaching 40 degrees below zero do not qualify as extreme here.
Rick Thoman, climate specialist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at UAF, said temps would need to be in the 50s or 60s below zero to approach Fairbanks records on any January day.
This past week, residents seemed undaunted.
Mark Ross mimicked the motion of cross country skiing on the packed trails of Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge, where he works at the visitors center. The moon rose above the frosted trees in a magenta afternoon sky as he exercised.
Ross, a refuge biologist and educator for Alaska Department of Fish and Game, recalled the epic cold of 1989-90. It hit 66 below then, he said, and prompted many sightings of the rare Alaskan black snake in the area — snapped fan belts littering the roadways.
“We’ve had a lot of warm winters. We’ve even had episodes of rain in the last 10-12 years,” said Ross, who has lived in Fairbanks for 40 years. “So this is kind of back to normal.”
“I’ve been here long enough that I realize 40 below wasn’t that uncommon, but now it’s more of a rarity,” he said.
Thoman said data backs up that assertion. In recent years, Fairbanks winters have had about 14 fewer minus 30 or colder days than it had in 1929-30. The trend has been steadily downward in that period. If the current run of minus-30-degree days reaches 10, it would be the longest such stretch since 2012, he said.
“The long-term trend is for less of that kind of cold, but of course it still occurs,” Thoman said.
“What absolutely doesn’t happen at anything like the frequency, or hardly happens at all, is those really, really cold temperatures, the 50s and 60s below,” he said.
Still, a week in the minus 30s is not without its challenges.
Downtown Wednesday, ice fog limited visibility to a block or so. The sunlight barely cut through a gray haze reminiscent of the wildfire smoke that Fairbanks often deals with in summer. A temperature inversion keeps the polluted air static and low in times like these. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s ongoing Stage 2 alert for Fairbanks means the air is unhealthy for sensitive groups.
Arnold Koyukuk looked for vulnerable people. He walked around to make sure no homeless residents were sleeping outside. Koyukuk said he knows from experience what it’s like for them. It’s hard for homeless people to find a warm place to sit down, he said.
“I worry about my friends,” Koyukuk said.
Wayne and Cathy Hofer, walking hand-in-hand nearby, didn’t quite know what they were in for when they planned this visit to Fairbanks to see the northern lights. The couple from Camas, Washington, said if they had a do-over, they might’ve packed differently.
“I don’t think I brought the right clothing,” Cathy said, her hooded face wrapped in a scarf.
“I should’ve brought my ski pants,” Wayne said from under his icy balaclava.
On the UAF campus, plumes billowed from the Ben Atkinson Building, home of the university’s heating and power plant. The sun, which is above the horizon for not quite five hours this time of year, hung heavy, giving off warmth only in color. The campus has some striking winter views. But some visitors likely never make it up the hill. Many stop at the digital sign on Alumni Drive.
“Welcome to Nanook Nation,” it flashed. “-36°F.”
The sign is a popular selfie stop for goofballs seeking the thrill of the chill. Many park on the sidewalk and dash into position, men baring their chests, women in bikinis. The lower the temperature, the brisker the foot traffic here for pictures.
Aaron Keyser, who recently moved to Fairbanks, said he remarked to friends back in Tampa, Florida, that it was 100 degrees colder here than there. He wore shorts in his photo and heckled the next person who arrived appropriately dressed for the conditions.
“If you’re in normal clothes, it doesn’t count,” Keyser yelled.
UAF seems to have embraced the tradition. The location includes an oversized stuffed polar bear to stand near. The university welcomed new members to the “Forty Below Club” this week on its Instagram account. At 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, three carloads of people took turns posing for pictures and feeling the icy burn before scampering back to their idling vehicles.
Sometimes giggles turn to groans in temperatures like this. Thoman, the climatologist, called 40 below kind of a “magic number” for trouble with mechanical things. Plastic gets brittle. Tires freeze into funny shapes. Frost exposes the flaws in weather sealing.
“Thirty-five to 40 below is kind of the level where things start to go wrong, and when things go wrong, it becomes much harder to fix,” he said.
[Related: The physics of 40 below]
Shirley Franklin knows that’s true at the Chatanika Lodge, about 28 miles northeast of the city center. Franklin, who owns the lodge with her husband, said the cold complicates the flow of propane, which they use to cook. That happened this week when temps reached 52 below, she said.
Does the cold bother her?
“It’s starting to, because I’m getting up there in age,” she said in the empty barroom, papered with the signed dollar bills of decades of visitors. Franklin said her husband doesn’t like her driving to town alone in cold like this. And it’s harder for her to keep her hands and feet warm.
At 78, it might be time to retire soon, she said.
Franklin peeked through venetian blinds to see if the aurora was active in the sky. Too cold to go outside, she said. For a moment that night, the northern lights were in full glory, creating a fleeting but thick green blanket over Franklin’s stretch of the dark Steese Highway.
Franklin is not alone in her mixed feelings about the Fairbanks cold. Back in the city Thursday morning, Lucee Bellamy, 44, waited tables at Airport Way Family Restaurant. A few empty vehicles idled out front as the daylight began to filter through the fog. It’s these long stretches that weigh on her, Bellamy explained.
“I’m over it,” Bellamy said.
Bellamy said her kids are grown now and she’s thinking of moving somewhere warm. But she admits she’s been saying that for who-knows-how-many winters. It’s also true that she has come to appreciate Fairbanks’ small-town sense of community, she said. She once thought it crazy to live here, but that was 20 years ago.
“It’s home,” she said.