Downtown Fairbanks is pictured on a cold day in January 2017. (Courtesy Photo | Ned Rozell)

Downtown Fairbanks is pictured on a cold day in January 2017. (Courtesy Photo | Ned Rozell)

Thermometers at work everywhere in Alaska

Let’s talk temperatures.

Every Alaskan owns at least one version of a sensitive scientific instrument: the thermometer. But what is it measuring?

Because hot and cold are relative terms, sometimes our senses can’t be trusted to tell us the difference. For example, a tub of ice water will feel warm if you stick your foot in it after walking barefoot at 40 below.

Real hot and cold can be thought of as a measurement of motion: the temperature of water, air, motor oil or any other substance is a measure of the average speed of molecules and atoms within the substance. The faster the molecules are bumping around, the higher the temperature.

Prospect Creek in northern Alaska, pictured on a recent 80-degree summer day, has the record for Alaska’s coldest temperature of minus 80 degrees F, on Jan. 23, 1971. (Courtesy Photo | Ned Rozell)

Prospect Creek in northern Alaska, pictured on a recent 80-degree summer day, has the record for Alaska’s coldest temperature of minus 80 degrees F, on Jan. 23, 1971. (Courtesy Photo | Ned Rozell)

If we had a freezer capable of cooling air to -459 degrees Fahrenheit, for example, the oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen molecules within air would theoretically stop moving. This point, known as absolute zero, is the starting point of the Kelvin scale, which was named after Lord Kelvin, a British scientist who lived from 1824 to 1907.

The Kelvin scale is useful for temperature measurements in space. The average temperature of the universe is about 2.7 Kelvins, or -454.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures on Earth are much higher because of several factors: the sun’s warmth, the ability of Earth’s surface to absorb solar radiation, and the heat-trapping effects of the atmosphere, a thirty-mile shell of gases.

Because Earth is tilted on its axis, the north and south poles lean away from direct sunlight for much of the year. Although we northerners tend to talk tough about our cold snaps, those on the other end of the globe feel greater extremes. The coldest temperature ever measured was -129 degrees Fahrenheit, at Vostok, a Russian scientific station in Antarctica, on July 21, 1983.

Antarctica, a mountainous continent larger than the United States (even with Alaska tacked on), is colder than the North Pole. Antarctica averages at least 35 degrees colder than the Arctic. The highest temperature ever recorded at the geographic South Pole, located on Antarctica, is 9.9 degrees F. The average yearly temperature at the same spot is -57 degrees F.

The lowest temperature recorded this side of the equator, -90 degrees F, was recorded at Verkhoyansk, Russia. Closer to home, Snag, a lonely outpost in the Yukon Territory, holds the North American cold record with a reading of -81 F on Feb. 3, 1947.

That just nips Alaska’s coldest official temperature, a -80 F felt at Prospect Creek off the Dalton Highway north of the Yukon River on Jan. 23, 1971.

Now that you are chilled with thoughts of Alaska’s air molecules at their most sluggish, a warmer thought: the official high temperature for Hawaii is identical to Alaska’s high. Thermometers in Fort Yukon (in 1915), and Pahala, Hawaii (in 1931), reached the same high temperature, a level that hasn’t been reached in Alaska since — 100 degrees F.


• 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. A version of this column appeared in 2004.


More in News

Float of ducks off Pt. Louisa with Eagle Peak, on Admiralty National Monument around dusk in Juneau winter.
Wild Shots: Photos of Mother Nature in Alaska

Reader-submitted photos of Southeast Alaska.

FILE - Participants wave signs as they walk back to Orlando City Hall during the March for Abortion Access on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Orlando, Fla.  State-by-state battles over the future of abortion in the U.S. are setting up across the country as lawmakers in Republican-led states propose new restrictions modeled on laws passed in Texas and Mississippi even as some Democratic-controlled states work to preserve access.  (Chasity Maynard/Orlando Sentinel via AP, File)
With Roe in doubt, states act on abortion limits, expansions

“This could be a really, really dramatic year…”

This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, yellow, emerging from the surface of cells, blue/pink, cultured in the lab. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, NIAID-RML
COVID at a Glance for Friday, Jan. 21

Numbers come from reports from the City and Borough of Juneau Emergency… Continue reading

Ted Nordgaarden of the Alaska Bureau of Investigation imitates the gesture made by the defendant during the trial of a man charged with killing another man in Yakutat in 2018. (Screenshot)
Investigator testifies as trial concludes second week

The jury watched video of the defendant’s initial interview in custody.

Peter Segall/Juneau Empire
One of the last cruise ships of the 2021 season docks in Juneau on Oct. 20, 2021. Local operators say it’s too early to know how the upcoming cruise season will unfold, but they’re cautiously optimistic.
Smooth sailing for the 2022 season?

Cautious optimism reigns, but operators say it’s too early to tell.

It's a police car until you look closely and see the details don't quite match. (Juneau Empire File / Michael Penn)
Police calls for Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022

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

This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, yellow, emerging from the surface of cells, blue/pink, cultured in the lab. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, NIAID-RML
COVID at a Glance for Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022

Numbers come from reports from the City and Borough of Juneau Emergency… Continue reading

Most Read