Even With Temperatures in the Minus 30s, 40s and 50s, Alaska's Cold Snap Isn't Record-Breaking

Jonathan Erdman
Published: January 9, 2019

When temperatures plummet into the minus 30s, 40s and 50s, records would be smashed in many locations. In Alaska's interior, however, it's just typical for January.

(Fairbanks International Airport/Alaska DOT)

Beginning Jan. 4, a round of cold air settled into our 49th state and has been in place since then.

Fairbanks, Alaska, had five consecutive days with lows in the minus 30s from Jan. 4-8 before temperatures warmed into the single digits below zero on Jan. 9.

The Latest Temperatures in Alaska and the Yukon Territory

Due to the low amount of January daylight – about 4.5 hours – and low sun angle, it's common for temperatures to warm very little during the day in these cold outbreaks.

On two of those days, the temperature in Fairbanks failed to rise out of the minus 30s, with ice fog reported.

Some areas were even colder.

Alaska's most frigid winter temperatures are typically in valley floors in the state's interior, away from the moderating influence of the Gulf of Alaska. Valleys adjacent to mountain ranges are optimal collection points for dense, cold air drainage.

The gold rush town of Chicken, about 350 miles east-southeast of Fairbanks near the border with Canada's Yukon Territory, plunged into the minus 50s three straight days Jan. 6-8, bottoming out with a low of minus 56 degrees on Jan. 7. It failed to rise out of the minus 40s each of those days.

Another frequent cold spot, the village of Tok, about 60 miles southwest of Chicken, plunged to minus 53 degrees, then minus 52 on Jan. 7 and 8, respectively.

Imagine seeing this on your outdoor thermometer, as a Fairbanks News-Miner reader noted just outside of Fairbanks on Jan. 7.

Still not cold enough for you?

The National Weather Service issues wind chill advisories when wind chills are low enough to potentially lead to frostbite on exposed skin if outdoors.

Even rarer, wind chill warnings are hoisted when the combination of very cold air and high winds could lead to frostbite or hypothermia in a matter of minutes.

When such a warning is issued in Alaska, given the cold that occurs there, it grabs your attention, such as one issued for the Brooks Range on Jan. 9. Have you ever felt a wind chill of minus 65 degrees?

A wind chill warning issued for parts of the Brooks Range of northern Alaska on Jan. 9, 2019.

Cold, But Not Record-Breaking

As cold as these temperatures have been, to Alaskans, this is just a typical winter cold snap.

Thus far, there have been no daily record lows since Jan. 4.

In Fairbanks, for example, daily record-low temperatures from Jan. 4-9 range from minus 53 degrees to minus 57. Its coldest low on Jan. 7 (minus 39) was 16 degrees warmer the daily record.

(MORE: The Coldest Temperatures Ever Recorded in All 50 States

Alaska climate specialist Rick Thoman noted Fairbanks hadn't plunged to minus 40 degrees in almost two years, since Feb. 12, 2017, something that used to be more typical in winters past.

What about those minus 50s in Chicken?

According to Thoman and climate scientist Brian Brettschneider, they typically happen nine times a year in that town.

According to NOAA's ACIS database, to chalk up a daily record low Jan. 4-9 in Chicken, lows need to bottom out from minus 63 degrees to minus 70, about 12 to 14 degrees colder than what this cold snap has delivered.

Anchorage has only managed to dip to minus 7 on both Jan. 6 and 7, its first subzero lows of the winter.

"I was surprised to remember how cold 0 degrees Fahrenheit felt," Brettschneider told weather.com. "It used to be no big deal, but now it is."

Brettschneider noted it has been 10 years since Alaska's largest city plunged below minus 15 degrees, something that used to occur three to six times each winter.

"Cold snaps in Alaska still occur, but they are less intense and less frequent than they used to be," said Brettschneider.

"To some degree, it's a relief to have a good cold snap," he added. "It pushes the frost line a little deeper, makes the river ice a little thicker and delays our day of (warm) reckoning just a little bit."

According to preliminary data from the Southeast Regional Climate Center, 2018 was among the five warmest years on record in a number of Alaska locations, including Anchorage (second-warmest) and Fairbanks (tied for fifth-warmest).

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