Subzero cold maintains tight grip on remote town of Chicken, Alaska

This image shows subzero temperatures across Alaska early Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020. (AccuWeather)

Following an October that was milder than normal in Alaska, it turned brutally cold in parts of The Last Frontier this week.

Subzero cold is not uncommon for interior Alaska in early November, but the dramatic plunge that occurred earlier this week was notably harsh.

Early on Monday, temperatures dropped to minus 23 F in Fairbanks for the first time this season, which is the earliest the city has recorded a temperature that low since Oct. 25, 1996. The coldest Nov. 2 on record in Fairbanks is 33 below zero, and that temperature reading was recorded back in 1907.

An average high temperature for early November in the city is 16 degrees Fahrenheit while a typical low is around zero.

“Strong high pressure coupled with longer nights and shorter days allowed temperatures to become very low across the state,” AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dave Samuhel said of the recent cold snap.

Several hundred miles to the east of Fairbanks, the remote town of Chicken, Alaska, (population of 13, according to the United States Census Bureau) reached 40 below zero early Monday, making it the earliest minus 40 or below reading in Alaska since 2008, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). Farther north in Circle, Alaska, which has a slightly larger population of 74, the mercury dipped to minus 30. Circle is about 155 miles northeast of Fairbanks.


On Wednesday, the low in Fairbanks bottomed out at minus 29 F, just one degree short of the daily record of 30 below zero. Temperatures failed to even come close to zero on Wednesday as the high peaked at minus 14.

“I would say those temperatures [in Fairbanks and Chicken] are pretty unusual for late October and early November,” said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Brett Anderson, who regularly issues forecasts for Alaska, and noted the cold blast was “impressive.”

The cold was not in a hurry to depart either. In fact, the high on Thursday in Fairbanks was forecast to reach 3 F. It’s the first day the high temperature has been forecast to reach above zero since Sunday. In Chicken, subzero temperatures were forecast on Thursday with meteorologists predicting a high of minus 11. A high of 3 is forecast on Friday, which would be the first day with a high above zero since Sunday.

Amid the brutal cold came a colorful sight. The NWS shared a stunning image of light pillars that formed on Tuesday night in Fairbanks. The phenomenon occurs when light is refracted by ice crystals but for ice crystals to form the weather needs to not only be cold, but calm as well. Light pillars typically take on the color of the light source itself.

“They appear as beams of light to the observer. It is usually caused by street lights. However, any source of light can create a light pillar given proper conditions,” Samuhel said.

The extreme cold arrived after the western two-thirds of Alaska was milder than normal for October, according to Anderson. The highest temperature departures occurred in the northwestern part of the state, including around Nome. The eastern and southeastern quarter of the state averaged near to slightly below normal for October including cities such as Juneau, he said.

Temperatures in October were above normal in Fairbanks as the lowest temperature in the city during the month was 1 below zero on Oct. 23.

Some relief from the brutal cold is set to unfold in the coming days, but not before a snowstorm plows across the state.

A large swath of Alaska is currently under a winter storm warning. Areas from Nome on the west coast all the way through Fairbanks and to the state’s border with the Canadian province of Yukon are under the warning.

“A strong storm system moving east from the Bering Sea will scour out the Arctic air mass,” Samuhel said. “But in the process, it will spread widespread snow across the state.”

“The next 10 days do not look all that cold,” Anderson added.

Both Anderson and Samuhel said there is the potential for another round of abnormal cold during mid- to late November, especially for central and eastern Alaska. The extended AccuWeather forecast shows low temperatures in Chicken around minus 20 or lower during the third week of November.

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