Fairbanks’s frigid history from the vantage point of a fantastically warm February

Richardson Highway bridge over Tanana River near Big Delta. Air temperature -40 degrees Fahrenheit. February 7, 1950. Photo by JR Williams via USGS

Finally, a breath of rejuvenating air. Fairbanks welcomed February by finally breaking 0 degrees, the temperatures highest in the hills.

Before we continue in celebration, may I ask for a moment of silence for dearly departed January? Fairbanks suffered through an average of minus 26.9 degrees, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. While Bettles, Galena, and Nome got bragging rights for the coldest January on record, Fairbanks settles for fifth place.

The record in Fairbanks has gone uncontested for more than 100 years. Which makes me wonder – what was Fairbanks like then?

Fairbanks’ coldest January, in 1906 (averaging minus 36.4 degrees, just-so-you-know), started a bitter year for the city. Fairbanks was but three years old when a fire destroyed much of downtown in May 1906. Damages totaled about $1 million, a seventh of what the city of 7,000 people earned from gold in 1905. The Fairbanks Firefighters website has a more in-depth account of that fateful May.

Fairbanksans started keeping weather records during that cold year, starting off 100 years of data for Alaska scientists. Since its inception, Fairbanks was not only tied to the country’s passions economically with the Gold Rush, but scientifically. Scientists like mountain-range namesake Alfred Brooks threaded Alaska into the geographic web of the United States, wrote UAF science writer Ned Rozell.

Alaska then was a wild land. Scientists conquered the territory’s mysteries by foot, as this was before the time of satellites or even planes, Rozell wrote. Even today, researchers travel from volcanoes across the Aleutians to treacherous mountain passes deep in the wilderness. It’s a tradition of adventure in data collection that’s endured for 100 years. And, with weather data at least, that dogged consistency’s resulted in solid results. During the hundred years after that unbeatable 1906 winter, Fairbanks annual temperatures rose more sharply than the rest of the world.

So, as Alaska awaits a new NOAA climate center, remember to look back at the history of Fairbanks weather services  — and be thankful the frigid winter that they started under remains solidly in the past.
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