Jesse Ferrell

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Was It Really 80 Below Zero In Alaska?

January 14, 2009; 12:33 PM

You may have heard rumors of a reading of -80 degrees in Alaska last week during their extreme cold wave (it's always cold in Alaska, but this was REALLY cold!). Here is a list of some of the readings that I've seen, and some discussion about them:

1. -80 at Tok, Alaska [Google Map], Jan. 8th: This temperature was photographed on an amateur weather station like the one I installed here at AccuWeather HQ, my house, and Joe Bastardi's house. These stations are usually accurate to within 1 degree, but according to the Vantage Pro manual [PDF], they have a range that starts at -50, which means that any number below that has no accuracy (why they display it on the console is beyond me).

This is an important reading because, if it could be confirmed, it would tie the all-time low temperature for the state. Without and official weather station there or a second opinion from another instrument, there is no way to tell if this reading was correct. The NWS in Fairbanks issued a statement saying "The coldest official reading in Tok so far has been 63 below. Some publicized unofficial readings from tok appear to be in error based on nearby official temperature stations and satellite temperature readings." They didn't say how they measured the official temperature there - there are no stations (unofficial or not) in MESOWEST (The Government Mesonet) near the city of Tok:

-68 F at Chicken & O'Brien Creek, AK, Jan. 8: The NWS says "The coldest official temperature recorded in the interior during the cold snap was 68 below at Chicken and O'Brien Creek both on the Taylor highway in the eastern interior." In a news report on AccuWeather.com, we quoted -61 at Northway, Alaska instead, and Internally, AccuWeather meteorologists describe the Chicken weather station data as "screwy at times." With the reading confirmed at O'Brien Creek, however, I see no problem with this reading.

-62 F at Yukon Flats, AK, Jan. 4: Speaking of "satellite readings" above, this report is from My Buddy Scott's Blog [JessePedia] (check his update at the bottom). He says "[satellite] temperatures in the Yukon Flats region (located in the southeastern portion of the image) were as cold as -52º C (-62º F) at 20:51 UTC (11:51 AM local time)." Of course, satellite is not an official way of measuring ground temperatures, but that's interesting nonetheless.

-47 F at Fairbanks, AK, Jan. 6 & 8: This was probably the coldest reading in a "major" city (by Alaska standards). The NWS says specifically: "The cold snap lasted 15 days with the coldest temperature recorded at Fairbanks international airport on the 6th and 8th of 47 below. On the 5th and 6th the temperature remained at or below 40 below for the 24 hour period." AccuWeather.com lists the lowest temperature at Fairbanks as -46 on Jan.9th, but believe it or not, that didn't approach the records which are in the mid -50's (their "normal" low temperature this time of year is -19!)

Blog reader Jim writes:

"I was looking at the 2 week cold snap ending the 11th at Fairbanks, and it averaged an astounding 29.5 F below normal for that period. I wondered how that stacks up to historical 2 week cold periods, so I went back thru the records to 1991. I found 2 comparable periods, both within a year of one another. The first was late Dec 1999 - early Jan 2000. This 2 week period averaged about 26 below normal. The other is less than a year earlier - late Jan 1999 thru early Feb 1999. This period was even colder, averaging about 31.5 below normal."

But now it's warming up there, big time. Here's some additional perspective by Jim Andrews in an AccuWeather.com Weather Headline yesterday:

This is no small warm-up. Given the depths to which temperatures have sunk thus far this month, this week's soaring readings will almost seem to herald spring. For perspective, consider that it has been as cold as 68 degrees below zero at Chicken, near the Yukon border. Northway had three daily lows below -60 degrees, whereas Fairbanks broke below -40 degrees on nine of 11 days. And average temperatures for the first 11 days of January have been nearly 30 degrees below normal in interior towns such as Fairbanks, Bettles and Northway.

As of Monday, the doorway to arctic cold is shutting ahead of a sweep of southerly wind off the northern Pacific Ocean. It is this surge of relative warmth that will drive temperatures to 30, 35 and locally even 40 degrees over the Alaska interior Wednesday and Thursday. The upshot would be an extreme temperature range of 70 to 90 degrees versus the depths of cold reached only last week.

NWS data obtained from previous versions of statements at this URL.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of AccuWeather, Inc. or AccuWeather.com

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Jesse Ferrell
Jesse Ferrell's WeatherMatrix blog covers extreme weather worldwide with a concentration on weather photos and Social Media.