Courtesy Photo / Ned Rozell
The valleys of Jim River and Prospect Creek in northern Alaska, where an official thermometer registered Alaska’s all-time low of minus 80 degrees F on Jan. 23, 1971.

Courtesy Photo / Ned Rozell The valleys of Jim River and Prospect Creek in northern Alaska, where an official thermometer registered Alaska’s all-time low of minus 80 degrees F on Jan. 23, 1971.

Alaska Science Forum: Alaska’s all-time cold record turns 50

The camp was there to house workers building the trans-Alaska pipeline

This article has been updated to omit identifying information.

By Ned Rozell

Jan. 23, 2021, was the 50th anniversary of Alaska’s all-time cold temperature: minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit, recorded by a weather observer at Prospect Creek Camp.

Now a clearing in the woods, Prospect Creek Camp was located near the confluence of Prospect Creek and the Jim River, just north of the Arctic Circle and about 160 miles north of Fairbanks.

The camp was there to house workers building the trans-Alaska pipeline. The high temperature at Prospect Creek Camp that January day in 1971 was minus 64 degrees. The warmest air people in Allakaket (about 56 miles away) felt the next day was minus 66 degrees, which is still Alaska’s record for the coldest high temperature of any day.

Nearby, Bettles was mired in a classic cold snap: Thermometers in the small town on the Koyukuk River hit 25 below or colder for a month straight.

[Time stands still on the solstice]

Along with the war in Vietnam and the trial of Charles Manson, the U.S.-record low temperature half a century ago was front-page news in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Courtesy Photo / Steve McCutcheon, Steve McCutcheon Collection, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center
Prospect Creek Camp under construction in 1970.

Courtesy Photo / Steve McCutcheon, Steve McCutcheon Collection, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center Prospect Creek Camp under construction in 1970.

Beneath the headline “Ice fog clogs Fairbanksans,” reporter Sue Lewis wrote of a new daily low record of minus 55 being set in Fairbanks on the same day it was 25 degrees colder at Prospect Creek. She also mentioned a four-car pileup due to thick ice fog.

An editorial writer accurately described that phenomenon, rarely seen these days because air temperatures need to drop below minus 30 before it can form:

“Ice fog is produced when water vapor coming from automobile exhaust, buildings, furnaces and open water from heating plants meets an air mass too cold to dissolve it and cold enough to crystallize it.”

Looking back at climate records, January 1971 weather was worthy of news coverage. The average temperature in Fairbanks that month was minus 31.7!

As impressive as Prospect Creek’s minus 80 seems today, Alaska’s record is not North America’s all-time low. The revered mark of minus 81 degrees F was set on Feb. 3, 1947, in Canada, at an airstrip called Snag, less than 20 miles from Alaska.

Alaska has come close to the all-time cold record a few times. On Jan. 27, 1989, Galena registered at 70 below, McGrath 75 below, and Tanana 76 below. Weather observers Dick and Robin Hammond of Chicken, Alaska, recorded minus 72 degrees during their 8 a.m. thermometer check on Feb. 7, 2008. Two days later, Larry and June Taylor — also official observers for the National Weather Service — recorded the same temperature at O’Brien Creek off the Taylor Highway.

Another 80-below temperature in these warmer times is possible, according to University of Alaska Fairbanks climate expert Rick Thoman.

“Though with higher greenhouse gas concentrations and warmer oceans than 50 years ago, it’s less likely,” he said.

There are also fewer official weather-recording stations in cold places now than there were during pipeline construction 50 years ago, Thoman said.

“There are many more surface observations in Interior Alaska now than in 1971, but hardly any are in places that could plausibly get to 80 below — which is not many places. The most realistic chance for currently active stations is the Chicken cooperative site, and maybe Wiseman.”

• 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.

More in News

A Princess Cruise Line ship is docked in Juneau on Aug. 25, 2021. (Michael Lockett / Juneau Empire File)
Ships in Port for the week of Aug. 7

Here’s what to expect this week.

(Juneau Empire File / Michael Penn)
Police calls for Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022

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

Ice fog, a phrase in Russell Tabbert’s Dictionary of Alaskan English, is not uttered in many other places because to form it takes a sustained temperature of minus 35 F. (Courtesy Photo / Ned Rozell)
Alaska Science Forum: Alaska lexicon sinks in over the years

When my little Ford pickup chugged into Alaska 36 years ago this… Continue reading

Mimi Israelah, center, cheers for Donald Trump inside the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska, during a rally Saturday July 9, 2022. Two Anchorage police officers violated department policy during a traffic stop last month when Israelah, in town for a rally by former President Donald Trump showed a "white privilege card" instead of a driver's license and was not ticketed. (Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News)
Alaska officers violated policy in ‘white privilege’ stop

It’s unclear what policy was violated or what disciplinary actions the two officers faced.

(Juneau Empire File / Michael Penn)
Police calls for Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2022

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

Capital City Fire/Rescue vehicles form a line at Juneau International Airport for a drill. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Women arrested after Monday morning structure fire

Arrest does not appear related to two other recent fires, per fire marshal.

(Juneau Empire File / Michael Penn)
Police calls for Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2022

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

Keke Tian Ke is the featured artist for the month of August at the Juneau Artists Gallery. Her new works on display are an exploration of the landscapes and natural wonders Juneau has to offer. She’ll be at the First Friday event on Aug. 5 from 4:30 to 8 p.m. on the ground floor of the Senate Building, 175 South Franklin.
Here’s what’s happening for First Friday

Keke Tian Ke featured artist for August at Juneau Artists Gallery

Select North Douglas residents are expected to experience an emergency water line shut down Thursday.
Some North Douglas residents set to experience emergency water line shutdown Thursday

The line shut down will occur between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Thursday.

Most Read