Thursday, February 7, 2008

Eternal Frost

The thermometer bottoms out at Obrien Creek near Eagle, Alaska (Larry Taylor photo)

Deep cold gripped Alaska and the Yukon this week. Some of the coldest temperatures reported in North America in nearly 8-years occured the past few days. The weather observer in Chicken, Alaska captured an icy -72F (-57.8C) the past two mornings. This is the coldest official temperature in the US since January 2000, which also occurred in Chicken. This reading is 3 degrees shy of the coldest temperature ever recorded in the US during February. The record for February was -75F (-59.4C) at Tanacross in 1947. And the low temperature reported in Chicken this week is only 8 degrees shy of the all-time record low for the US, which was -80F (-62.2C) set back in January 1971.

This is an infrared satellite image of eastern Alaska and the Yukon Territory. The white pixels represent colder temperatures and the darker pixels are warmer temperatures. This is a fascinating image because you can see that the cold, dense air (white areas) sitting in the valleys. In the upper half of the picture it is possible to make out the dendritic river valleys snaking up into the Brooks Range. The valleys in the Yukon are also clearly visible. The big white area in the middle is the Yukon Flats - a bathtub of cold air. Fort Yukon was reporting -60F when this image was captured. The satellite imagery indicated some of the colder valley locations were reporting temperatures into the -70'sF. Unfortunately, these remotely sensed temperatures are not official since no one was there to actually measure the temperature.

So the temperature plummeted to the -50's F in Fairbanks and I continued my daily routine of commuting to work on my skis. "Are you nuts?"--some may ask. I have found that it takes just as long to warm up the truck and drive. The skis dont need to be plugged in and its much easier on the truck to sit dormant in the driveway. I have been called a freak many times because of my obsession with the cold. Its difficult to convey to people the power and peacefulness of a subzero world. The crisp, dark mornings are something very special to me as the icy air bites my face and fills my lungs with every deep breath--and the last green curtains of aurora dance over my shoulders before being washed away by the first rays of sunlight.

I will end this post with a poem passed on to me by my friend Lena:

Cold Poem

Cold now. Close to the edge. Almost
unbearable. Clouds bunch up and boil down
from the north of the white bear.
This tree-splitting morning
I dream of his fat tracks,
the lifesaving suet.

I think of summer with its luminous fruit,
blossoms rounding to berries, leaves,
handfuls of grain.

Maybe what cold is, is the time
we measure the love we have always had, secretly,
for our own bones, the hard knife-edged love
for the warm river of the I, beyond all else; maybe

that is what it means the beauty
of the blue shark cruising toward the tumbling seals.

In the season of snow,
in the immeasurable cold,
we grow cruel but honest; we keep
ourselves alive,
if we can, taking one after another
the necessary bodies of others, the many
crushed red flowers.

Mary Oliver


Anonymous said...

My hubby and I were in Ft. Yukon in the winter of '78 living in a small trailer out by the airport in State housing - he was a State Trooper stationed there. The furnace (it was cycling) couldn't keep up and the sewer froze and that was about it until spring - I think it was January or February. That was the end of MY time in the bush ... dang - back to town with me and my hubby got to be the FIRST roving Bush Trooper. He worked the area north of Fbks from Galena to the Canadian border - 40,000 sq. miles ... lots of fun! :) He commuted in a plane! But your commuting is a GREAT idea!

Anonymous said...

oh and it was -70 below! I meant to say that too!