Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Thus far one of my predictions for 2008 is holding true - this damned cold snap is persisting. I live in a good spot, on the side of a hill well above a creek bottom and the flats where the coldest air tends to settle, yet during my work rotation the temperature at the house dropped to -40. It's been much colder down in the flats, with my vet reporting temperatures of around -55, and others reporting equally cold temperatures.

When the mercury (or more commonly, the colored alcohol) becomes a frozen ball at the bottom of the thermometer nothing is every easy. Even the simplest of tasks requires twice as long as during more normal winter temperatures, and sometimes something that should be easy is turned into a test of endurance.

Just the task of starting a vehicle can become a nightmare of complications. My little car didn't want to start yesterday because of a low battery, in spite of having the engine heaters plugged in for over 24 hours. Jump starting it became a high priority task as I was anxious to return home for my one week off. First, I had to find an operating vehicle to jump with. The truck assigned to us at work had died two days earlier, from a failed alternator. I was able to borrow another from the Pump Station staff, so that part actually was easy.

The next step, gaining access to the batteries of both vehicles, took twice as long as one would expect. I had to brush snow off the hood of my car, and then chip ice that sealed the bonnet closed. With the hood up, getting to the battery was the next project. In that model, the battery is tucked behind the lower lodge of the windshield and covered with plastic molding that must be removed. I should note it must be carefully removed. At sub-zero temperatures most plastics become very stiff and brittle, and it takes very little force to break things that otherwise seem tough as nails and nearly bullet-proof. That step took at least twice as long as it normally should.

Next was the simple matter of attaching the jumper cables, but at forty-below nothing is simple. As soon as I removed the cables from the nice, warm cab of the truck they stiffened in the cold, much as my body when walking outside from a heated building while too lightly dressed. Coiled up and stiff, trying to stretch them from one rig to the other was like stretching out a coil spring. Just getting the clips attached to the posts on both batteries took easily twice as long as it normally should. Fortunately, once I had everything connected the car started quite easily.

Then began the task of putting everything back to normal. Coiling the now stiff and frozen jumper cables was nearly impossible, at least doing so without damaging the now frozen insulation. The molding had to be reinstalled over the battery (it provides weather protection for the battery and a fairly large part of the engine) & so forth. By the time the car was running, the hood down and the truck returned to it's proper parking area, what should have been a simple 10 minute job had stretched into most of an hour.

Shortly afterward, I learned that my departure from the station would be delayed. Many of our employees live in the south-central region of the State and some live Outside - defined as anywhere Outside of Alaska. They generally fly to work on a chartered aircraft. When the "crew change flight" from Los Anchorage arrived over Fairbanks they were unable to land due to ice fog.

When the temperatures are this cold, the least bit of water vapor released into the air through combustion is instantly frozen into microscopic ice crystals. You can see the effect on a YouTube video at The effect of all the ice crystals from motor vehicles, home and industrial heating and other sources is a concentration of ice that forms a dense, impenetrable fog.

So, the crew change flight continued north to Prospect Creek and workers were taken in convoys of trucks to their various job sites. As a result of the major logistics involved, I was late leaving my place of employment. I had to postpone a doctor's appointment, provide a ride to my co-worker to town, and still had to buy dog food and groceries before I could head to the house.

Once home I needed to unload my baggage and groceries and head out straightaway to pick up my dogs from two different kennels where they board while I'm away. I was concerned that my diesel powered dog truck might not start, as diesel engines rely on compression to ignite the fuel vapor, and of course metal contracts in the cold. When pistons contract they frequently can't generate enough heat through compression to ignite the cold diesel fuel. My truck's engine and oil pan heaters had been plugged in for several days, and I was delighted that it fired right up.

In fact, most of my late afternoon and evening tasks went very smoothly. No major cold weather related problems at all. When I returned home with the dogs I understood why - it had warmed up to a balmy 25-below.

This morning the thermometer here at the house is registering thirty below, and the forced air furnace that heats my place is running almost non-stop. The cold-snap if forecast to last a few more days and I think I'll try to find some indoor projects to keep myself occupied. I think even the dogs will be happy to stick close to the house rather than brave the cold.

It's almost time for me to go out and water the dogs. I'll have to don several layers of clothing so a task that should take about half an hour is likely to stretch to an hour or more. When the weather turns bitter in Alaska, everything takes at least twice as long as it should.

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