Weeks of sub-30 temperatures on Alaska’s North Slope have frozen pipes and led to the loss of a school in a devastating fire.

Up on Alaska’s North Slope, towards the end of each January, the sun’s slow emergence from its winter hibernation illuminates the tundra in hallucinogenic shades of blue and yellow. For the first time since November, the cosmic star rose above the horizon on January 24.

As the sun has risen higher in the sky, the temperature has plummeted across America’s northernmost region. One Elder in Utqiagvik, the biggest town on the North Slope, observed to me, “When the sun gets higher, the temperature gets colder.” Most days, the thermometer plunged as low as -36°F. Combined with the wind chill, the air felt like -50 to -60 degrees below zero.

A sign warning about the broken thermostat, with another behind it warning against polar bears.

Within the short window of light each day, the air was bright, clear, and cracking cold. Each time I stepped outside, the moisture inside my nostrils would instantly freeze. My breath would condense into a million tiny ice crystals on my glasses, making it impossible to see. Rubbing the frozen fog away with my bare thumb felt like a thousand paper cuts.

People in Utqiagvik remarked that sub-30° temperatures hadn’t been sustained for so long in years. A man I spoke to recalled that last year, the temperature only broke -30° once. I don’t know if it was the cold weather or an unrelated mechanical problem, but the thermostat at the Top of the World Hotel, Utqiagvik’s largest, was out of order.

Frozen pipe dreams

The long cold snap brought municipal infrastructure to a grinding halt, too. At the monthly public meeting of the North Slope Borough Assembly, which has administrative powers akin to those of a county in the Lower 48, the “Employee of the Month” award was granted to an experienced Borough handyman. He has been heroically fixing residents’ frozen pipes all month long, both in the regional hub of Utqiagvik and across the borough’s seven villages stretching from Point Hope, on the Bering Strait, to Kaktovik, near the Canadian border. After the straight-shooting employee accepted his award to a standing ovation, he offered a cursory thank-you before announcing with perfect comedic timing: “Now I gotta go out and fix some frozen pipes.” Dressed in his work coveralls, he then hustled out the door.

The frozen Chukchi Sea on the edge of Utqiagvik, Alaska – the northernmost town in America.

To stay warm, residents have been burning through fuel, and lots of it. In Kaktovik, a village of 250 people on the edge of the Beaufort Sea just north of the controversial Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 1200 tons of diesel are burned daily to provide the town’s power and heating. At the North Slope Borough, Steve Oomittuk, a borough assembly member for Point Hope, stressed about a village nestled far inland in the Brooks Range, “Anatuvuk Pass is almost out of diesel.” The fuel has to be flown in since there are no roads to the village, let alone pipelines. “Everyone’s turning on ovens, electric heaters, and using so much power to heat their houses.”

With the long cold snap, across the North Slope and even as far south in Alaska as Juneau, people’s pipes have been frozen for weeks. That even means toilets are frozen, which is not a pretty situation.

Outhouses and honey buckets (toilets emptied manually) are a recent memory for people of the North Slope. Even people in their early thirties still remember them. Most people are extremely grateful for the introduction of indoor plumbing. One young man I spoke to who grew up in the village of Atqasuk exclaimed,

“You know why development’s good? You don’t have to poop outside!”

A young man from the village of Atqasuk, Alaska

But when the cold snaps arrive, modernity’s conveniences can come to a screeching, septic halt.

A frozen playground in Utqiagvik, Alaska.

Where there’s ice, there’s fire

Combating the cold requires heat. In Kaktovik, which is known even among the North Slope’s residents for being brutally cold (I got frostnip on my nose after walking outside for approximately 20 minutes), this effort resulted in a devastating chain of events on Thursday night that led the village’s sole school to burn to the icy ground.

The school in Kaktovik, Alaska just a week before the fire.

According to an article in Alaska Public Media, a heater was placed next to the frozen pipes to try to defrost them. This sparked a blaze, which firefighters bravely tried to contain despite blisteringly cold temperatures. While no one was killed, the loss of most of the school – including its middle and high school sections, library, gym, and pool – is unimaginable. In a town that doesn’t even have a supermarket or stand-alone restaurant, the school is a critical center for the community. In the fire, two large murals, trophies, and other important items were turned to ashes. The village will have to rebuild now, and in the meantime, lessons are being held in the much smaller community center across the street.

The illusion of “good weather”

Many residents expressed that the return of the cold is good for the environment. While I was waiting at the post office in Utqiagvik – the country’s northernmost facility, and one largely staffed by Filipinos – I overhead an Inupiat man in camouflage pants remark to someone else in line, “It’s good weather. I like it. Everything’s got to heal and freeze back up. Especially after that wet summer. ATVs couldn’t even get across.”

The idea that a long cold snap, even a month long, could actually heal the warmed earth is unfortunately misplaced. The permafrost has been thawing for decades, and a frigid spell will not jolt it back into cryogenesis. Much as people might hope, climate change will not be reversed by one cold winter.*

Adapting to the great indoors

As Utqiagvik and the North Slope’s villages have adopted modern infrastructure over the decades, people have taken to staying indoors more, especially in winter. Several individuals remarked to me that residents don’t go outside as much as they once. Instead, televisions and phones occupy their attention, keeping them indoors. Walking around town is deemed a risky option due to the presence of polar bears, so driving (or occasionally snowmachining) is the main way to get around.

One Utqiagvik resident in his mid-20s said to me, “I don’t even think kids have snow pants anymore.” He also observed that he never sees sleds anymore like he did when he was growing up. “We used to sled down the gravel hills, with all the snow on them – now, I don’t know,” he reflected.

Around town, a lot of people I saw did in fact seem to be wearing sweatpants or jeans. These clothes are, in fact, an optimal choice if the longest time spent outdoors each day is the short walk between one’s home or work and vehicle – often left idling for hours so the power steering fluid doesn’t freeze up, as I learned the hard way.

Even for short trips though, underdressing can present risks. In the village of Nunam Iqua 630 miles southwest of Utqiagvik, four boys between ages 14 and two snowmachined out to the dumpster. They became disoriented in a winter storm and ended up having to spend 24 hours before being rescued. The kids had incredible survival skills, with the eldest managing to dig out a snow cave for them all to take shelter in while keeping the little one warm against him. Yet some of the kids were underdressed, with the eldest wearing sweatpants and one missing a pair of gloves. Miraculously, the children are expected to make a full recovery.

As each generation becomes farther removed from living entirely off the land and as the average temperature becomes warmer, one concern is that the skills needed to survive in Arctic conditions may gradually be forgotten. Subsistence hunting – specifically whaling – remain vital to life on the North Slope, for instance. But many young people no longer participate in such activities.

Not being able to hunt is one thing, but not having the skills to survive an accident on the tundra is another thing altogether. Subzero blasts may be decreasing in frequency, but they will still undoubtedly continue to freeze pipes and break thermostats at least in some winters. With the loss of traditional knowledge, cold spells and sweat pants may become more deadly.

The cemetery in Kaktovik, Alaska.

*I tried to find some scientific articles on the effects of cold snaps on permafrost but was unsuccessful. If anyone has insights to share, that would be very helpful.

Categories: USA/Alaska

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