Enduring freezing wind chills in interior Alaska and keeping permafrost beers from freezing

It’s early February, around the date that Glenn Shaw once noted as the first day at the latitude of Fairbanks when you could feel the sun tickle on your cheek.

Northern Alaskans don’t want to expose their faces today (Glenn, a retired atmospheric scientist at the Geophysical Institute, is fine – his cheeks are now in Tucson).

From a comfortable subarctic chair inside four walls, a quick check of active weather stations north of the Alaska Range shows temperature readings are all below zero degrees Fahrenheit; Nuiqsut wins the prize at 56 below.

Another number that stands out: a wind chill of 91 degrees below zero at the Howard Pass weather station. I don’t know how it keeps performing in sustained winds of 45 mph with an ambient temperature of 43 below, but this solitary instrument with pockmarked metal legs is a favorite of meteorologists who can imagine what it’s like down there without be frozen.

Howard Pass is a wind funnel through the Western Brooks Range about 100 miles north of the villages of Ambler and Kobuk.

Thanks to Pam Sousanes and Ken Hill of the National Park Service, who replace the wind monitor at Howard Pass Weather Station every summer, we know that wind chills below 70 occur the most there every winter.

National Park Service archaeologist Jeff Rasic points out that Howard Pass is rich in ancient dwellings, some of which were used in the winter. He knows the life of the dark season from the design of the underground living spaces, which featured cold trap tunnels at the entrances.

A few years ago, Rasic explained why Howard Pass – where no one currently lives – might have been a favored spot:

“It’s a reliable place to hunt caribou, and there are lakes with fish,” Rasic said. “If you’re someone trying to escape swarms of mosquitoes, the winds aren’t necessarily bad. And maybe a windswept place is good for winter travel – hard and crisp, good for getting around.

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In other cold-related news, John Gaedeke’s beer remains somehow runny outside his lodge at Lake Iniakuk in the Brooks Range, where it was 21 below on a recent morning.

He explained that he once buried an old chest freezer in the ground after removing its compressor. He sunk the freezer to its lid in ground that is permafrost – ground that has been frozen for a long time, but by definition at least two summers.

“In the summer, the insides of coolers don’t go above 40 degrees or below 35 degrees, so they’re great refrigerators without electricity,” Gaedeke wrote.

“At the end of the season, if I have extra beer or soft drinks, I put them in the broken freezer in the floor and close the lid. When I return the following summer, nothing is broken or frozen. I even came in the winter, dug in the snow, opened the freezer at -40 and pulled out an unfrozen beer that I can drink right away.

“How the hell is that possible? »

Vladimir Romanovsky, now enjoying his first week of retirement after 30 years of permafrost studies at the Geophysical Institute, replied:

“The permafrost (around Lake Iniakuk) is very warm (about 1 degree below freezing – unlike Utqiagvik, where permafrost 5 degrees colder would freeze beer).”

Romanovsky continued: “The snow insulation as well as the very good insulation of the walls of the freezer and the air in the freezer minimize the seasonal variations of the temperature in the freezer.

“In this case, the temperature in summer will be just slightly warmer than the average annual temperature, and in winter slightly colder than the average annual temperature. So it’s not cold enough to freeze the beer (5% alcohol beer freezes at -2.8 degrees Celsius or 27 degrees Fahrenheit).

Betty K. Park