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For first time in five years, Fairbanks gets a real taste of winter

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published January 19, 2017
Skiing at -43 in Fairbanks. (Dermot Cole / Alaska Dispatch News)

FAIRBANKS — After being cooped up inside all day, I went skiing Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. on the lighted trails east of town, hitting speeds of up to 4 mph. I had the trails all to myself.

The temperature was 39 below zero as I started and an hour later it had dipped to 43 below and then 45 below. I'm a big believer in the layered look and I was comfortable enough, looking like a skiing Michelin Man, until I tried to take a selfie with the temperature sign in the background, shedding my mittens.

As I fumbled with my phone and messed with the focus for a couple of minutes, my bare fingers quickly became nearly useless.

It was all I could do to get my skis off, retreat to the warmup hut and defrost my hands. I know real Alaska outdoorsmen will scoff and, well they should as this was not what you'd call an accomplishment.

My wife talked to me later about why there was no one else out skiing under the lights. She said, "Doesn't that tell you something?"

Because of what the absence of others told me, and that brainless move to take the gloves off, I was half-expecting to hear:  "The lights are on, but nobody's home," though it was her birthday and she is kind.

Machinery of all types doesn't work at its best when the negative numbers surpass 40, and some of us have a problem with mental machinery in all kinds of weather.

This is all by way of saying that yes, we had a blast of real winter weather here this week, the coldest in five years, and it was almost as if we had forgotten what Fairbanks is famous for.

That is, prolonged spells of 50 below and a thick blanket of ice fog in which landmarks disappear in an eerie frozen cloud that shrinks visibility to near zero. Our reputation as the home of fearful winter conditions is founded on a phenomenon that has become a rare occurrence.

The annual bouts of extreme winter weather helped shape a society in which people could feel comfortable wearing bunny boots to almost any event.

To deal with cold weather and survive, you have to respect what it can do and prepare to respond when things go wrong.

Trust me, 20 or 30 below is nothing compared to 40 below and colder, mainly because the hassle of keeping everything in operating order is so much greater when you get to 70 or 80 degrees below the freezing point of water.

Granted, it is a lot easier than it was decades ago because home heating systems are better, cars are more reliable and most have defrosters that work.

The first car I had in Fairbanks was a 1965 Ford Fairlane that could never produce enough heat to keep the windows free of frost. I always drove with one hand on an ice scraper and peering through a small plastic "frost shield" that was supposed to keep a peephole open.

We didn't have car thermometers in those days unless you wired one to the rearview mirror. Now I have an electronic one that lies to me on every cold day. It will never acknowledge that a temperature colder than 22 below is possible.

At 22 below there is no ice fog, but that changes at 40 below in the main parts of Fairbanks and North Pole where there are lots of cars and chimneys.

A couple of hundred feet up, the skies are clear, but at ground level people with perfect eyesight might as well be looking through frosted Coke bottle glasses for all the details they can detect in front of them.

You drift from one stoplight to the next, which are like lighthouses guiding the way along a socked-in coast. Ice fog and 50 below are societal equalizers.

I called up geophysicist Carl Benson, 89, for some fog facts. Benson, who now lives downtown in a fog-prone neighborhood, is an authority on ice fog.

Benson said he was tempted to go out and collect some icy samples, but his wife, Ruth, reminded him of his retired status. The impulse to study the fog is a strong one for Benson, who began his research more than a half-century ago.

The fog forms in Fairbanks at 35 below and colder, getting thicker as the temperature drops. Automobiles are the major contributor because every gallon of gas burned produces about a gallon of water.

At room temperature, the air has the ability to contain hundreds of times more water than it can at 40 below.

The extreme cold air is saturated with almost no moisture, so water emitted from exhaust pipes and lungs quickly forms small particles of ice that hang in the air for prolonged periods. The ice particles float because they are about 50 times smaller than some snowflakes.

You also add to the ice fog when you toss a pan of hot water into the air at 40 below — which is something I felt compelled to do Wednesday after I was done skiing. Some of us are easily entertained.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at 

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