Courtesy Photo / Ned Rozell 
The Alaska Range sits beneath a December sunrise as seen from the UAF campus.

Courtesy Photo / Ned Rozell The Alaska Range sits beneath a December sunrise as seen from the UAF campus.

Alaska Science Forum: The dark season turns on winter solstice

One winter day not long ago, a reporter from the Sacramento Bee called. She had read a story I wrote about life at 40 below in Fairbanks.

Meteorologists in the Sacramento office of the National Weather Service office had forecast a drop to 25 degrees in central California; people were concerned about their pipes freezing and fruit trees getting nipped.

“I want to talk with somebody who knows what it’s like to be really cold,” she said.

The reporter was intrigued when she heard about how we in Fairbanks plug in our cars to keep the battery warm and the oil liquid enough to allow the pistons to move. She gasped when she heard that our period of darkness was 18 hours. At the end of the call, she was fascinated that nearly 100,000 people live in such a place.

“People live there because they have high-paying jobs, like on the pipeline, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. “But people live here because it’s where they want to live, too.”

She went silent on the other end. Maybe she couldn’t comprehend. I sometimes wonder why tropical creatures live here myself. Especially now, in mid-December. We seem to have used up all our light.

True, we never totally run out of the possibility of direct sunlight at this sub-Arctic location, 125 miles south of the Arctic Circle. That is unlike America’s farthest-north town of Utqiagvik, where the sun set Nov. 18 and won’t rise until Jan. 23. But you’d still better walk your dog by 3 p.m. here if you don’t want to use a headlamp.

Fairbanks solar panels, most of them covered with snow, are now not receiving the slightest tickle from the sun, which arcs just two fingers above the Alaska Range at solar noon. In fact, by 8:30 a.m. on Dec. 1, Tucson had received as much solar energy as Fairbanks will for the entire month, according to climatologist Brian Brettschneider.

We had a surplus of that energy last June, when we received more sunshine in one day than Tucson did in two. But the gradual tilt of the Earth away from the sun helped us squander six minutes of light each day by September. That has trickled to a four-minute daily loss by mid-December.

Here we now slowly spin, starved for vitamin D (which our skin magically converts from sunlight) and awaiting another turn.

That turn is winter solstice. In Alaska, we will nod farthest from the sun at the instant of 12:47 p.m. on Dec. 21.

Even then, we are not out of the shadowy boreal forest. On Dec. 22, we gain just 10 seconds of light. It will take until the spring equinox, March 20, 2023, until we equal Tucson and Sacramento in potential hours of daylight. From there, we will race ahead until summer solstice on June 21, when we will be unable to stay awake long enough to avoid squandering our riches.

• Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell ned.rozell@alaska.edu is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.

Courtesy Photo / Ned Rozell 
December sunshine lights a freshly groomed cross-country ski trail and the Student Recreation Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Courtesy Photo / Ned Rozell December sunshine lights a freshly groomed cross-country ski trail and the Student Recreation Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

More in News

The Aurora Borealis glows over the Mendenhall Glacier in 2014. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Aurora forecast

Forecasts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute for the week of Jan. 22

David Holmes digs through a pile of boardgames during Platypus Gaming’s two-day mini-con over the weekend at Douglas Public Library and Sunday at Mendenhall Public Library. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire)
Good times keep rolling with Platypus Gaming

Two-day mini-con held at Juneau Public Library.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police calls for Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023

This report contains information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Juneau man indicted on child pornography charges

A Juneau man was indicted Thursday on charges of possessing or accessing… Continue reading

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire 
Juneau’s municipal and state legislative members, their staff, and city lobbyists gather in the Assembly chambers Thursday meeting for an overview of how the Alaska State Legislature and politicians in Washington, D.C., are affecting local issues.
Local leaders, lawmakers and lobbyists discuss political plans for coming year

Morning meeting looks at local impact of state, national political climates.

This photo shows pills police say were seized after a suspicious package was searched. (Juneau Police Department)
Police: 1,000 fentanyl pills, 86 grams of meth seized

Juneau man arrested on felony charges.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police calls for Friday, Jan. 27, 2023

This report contains information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Captain Anne Wilcock recieves the Emery Valentine Leadership Award at the 2022 CCFR awards banquet on Saturday, Jan. 14. (Courtesy Photo / CCFR)
CCFR honors responders during annual banquet

Capital City Fire/Rescue hosted its 2022 awards banquet earlier this month as… Continue reading

A resident and his dog walk past the taped off portion of the Basin Road Trestle after it suffered damaged from a rockslide earlier this week. The trestle is open to pedestrians, but will remain closed to vehicular traffic until structural repairs are made, according to city officials. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)
Rocky road: Basin Road Trestle open to pedestrians, remains closed to vehicles

City officials say repairs are currently being assessed after damaging rockfall

Most Read