FAIRBANKS - A mid-November cold snap seems to have caught even seasoned Fairbanksans off guard.
“I don’t think anybody was really expecting this,” 43-year-old Shawn Ross, a lifelong Fairbanksan, said. “This came out of the blue.”
For the second time in three days, Fairbanks set a new low temperature record on Thursday. A temperature of 41 degrees below zero — the first 40 below temperature of the season — was recorded at Fairbanks International Airport at 6:29 a.m., according to the National Weather Service in Fairbanks. That broke the old record of 39 below set in 1969.
The cold air settling in the flatlands has concentrated air pollution. The Fairbanks North Star Borough issued air quality advisories on Wednesday and Thursday because particulate matter was above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standards and rated as unhealthy for sensitive groups.
Fairbanks set a new record of 35 below on Tuesday and the temperature bottomed out at 39 below on Wednesday, two degrees shy of the record.
Thursday’s record low of 41 below marked the sixth earliest 40-below temperature recorded by the National Weather Service in Fairbanks since 1904. The earliest it’s ever hit 40 below in Fairbanks was Nov. 5, 1907, when it hit 41 below.
The last time Fairbanksans saw 40-below temperatures in November was in 1994, when temperatures of 45, 43 and 45 below were recorded on Nov. 24, 25 and 30, respectively.
The bitter, early season cold had Interior residents wondering if somebody turned the calendar ahead a month or two.
“This sort of thing is certainly more common in December and January than November,” meteorologist Dan Hancock at the National Weather Service in Fairbanks said. “We can go through an entire winter and not get this cold.”
Ross, who has owned Badger Towing for 11 years, said even he wasn’t prepared for a cold snap this severe so early in the season.
“I didn’t have all my trucks on the road,” he said Thursday as he scrambled to keep up with demand for his services from motorists stranded by shredded tires and frozen engines. “I had one driver who had to run down to the store to buy some winter boots because he was still wearing fall boots. He said he’d just wear another pair of socks, but that doesn’t do it.
“Twenty or 25 below is tolerable, but past 30 below it’s a whole different ball of wax,” Ross said.
Several record low temperatures set more than 40 years ago were broken overnight Wednesday in the Fairbanks area.
Eielson Air Force Base reported a low of 43 below early Thursday morning, which broke the previous record of 40 below in 1969. It was the second day in a row a new record was set at Eielson. It was 42 below there on Wednesday morning.
The coldest temperature reported Thursday morning was a record 54 below in Manley Hot Springs. A temperature of 49 below was recorded at KNJP radio station in North Pole, also a record.
Other low temperatures around the Interior on Thursday morning were 46 below in Fort Yukon, 45 below in Nikolai, 42 below in Nenana and Tanana and 40 below at Bettles.
The forecast calls for extreme temperatures through the weekend, though not quite as teeth-chattering as the past few days.
Highs today are expected to be 15 to 25 below with lows of 25 to 35 below. On Saturday, the forecast calls for highs of 10 to 15 below and lows of 25 to 35 below. Sunday might be a little warmer, with highs of 10 to 20 below and a low of 30 below.
The record low temperatures for Friday and Saturday are 33 below on both days, which means there is a decent chance for more low temperature records at the airport.
“High temperatures are going to remain well below zero but there will be some cloud cover and a somewhat warmer air mass will move in,” Hancock said.
As for how long the cold snap may last, forecasters said there’s a chance even colder air could move in early next week. How cold it gets will depend on how much cloud cover there is.
“There’s some inconsistencies in the models right now,” meteorologist Julie Malingowski said. “If it does clear out, we’re doomed.”
The cold temperatures are already affecting life for residents in Alaska’s second-largest city.
The Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks canceled races scheduled for Friday night and Sunday at Birch Hill Recreation Area that were expected to attract top racers from around the state, though the club is still hoping to hold a race on Saturday if the temperature warms up to the 15 below range, John Estle, the club’s racing coordinator, said.
For people like Ross, at Badger Towing, the cold temperatures mean brisk business.
“It’s probably multiplied five times since it got cold,” he said of business at his towing company. “There were a lot of cars not prepared for this.
“People are not checking their tire pressure,” he said, adding that tires lose air when it gets cold and then are more susceptible to going flat. “I’ve picked up five today along sitting on the side of the road with flat or shredded tires.”
While it’s still too early for buried water and sewer lines to freeze, Kirk Krause at Bigfoot Pumping and Thawing said he’s had several calls for frozen water lines inside houses.
“Plug in your heat tape and turn the heat up,” Krause advised. “A lot of people turn their heat down (to save money on heating oil) and it’s going to cost them more in the end” when pipes freeze.
With only a foot of snow on the ground to provide insulation from the cold, Krause said it won’t take long at these temperatures to drive the frost line down to the point where it will threaten buried lines.
“It helps, but it ain’t nearly enough, not if the weather stays like this,” he said of the thin snow cover. “With the lack of snow and this cold, it’s going to push that frost down pretty fast.”
Several record low temperatures were broken overnight Wednesday:
• Manley Hot Springs — 54 below
• North Pole (KJNP) — 49 below
• Eielson Air Force Base — 43 below
• Fairbanks International Airport — 41 below
• University Experimental Station — 41 below
• UAF West Ridge — 40 below
Earliest 40 Below
There have been five times when a temperature of 40 below or colder was recorded in Fairbanks earlier than it was this year.
• Nov. 5, 1907 — 41 below
• Nov. 10, 1989 — 42 below
• Nov. 14, 1956 — 41 below
• Nov. 16, 1969 — 41 below
• Nov. 16, 1956 — 40 below
• Nov. 17, 2011 — 41 below
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.