January, I have determined, is the month that best exemplifies what everybody thinks when they think Arctic. Of course I haven't tried February yet and I've heard it might be the colder of the two months, but it doesn't fall within the 63 days of night. January has it all. The extreme temperatures, sea ice, the first sunrise, the aurora... if you want to know what the Arctic is about and are feeling ballsy, visit in January!
Starting about January 17, I started getting pretty excited about the arrival of the sun. For about an hour or two each day the sky would get just light enough to turn our street lights off... and when you haven't seen the sun since roughly Thanksgiving that's pretty darn exciting. It finally broke the horizon on the 23rd. I went out and took a picture, of course. I've also been told that this excitement about the return of the sun is a sure sign that I'm not a native of Barrow. But you know, I don't believe that... at least the cab drivers seemed pretty happy about the prospect too. Another thing I've heard is that with the return of the sun comes the real cold. Now THAT certainly seems to be true.
The cold has really been epic in my opinion.... and it's been relentless. For weeks we have been staying in the -30s with wind chills down to -50. Many people have asked me if when it gets as cold as -15 or -20 does it really feel any different from -30... or in the case of today's temperature -44 with wind chill of -71? They always seem certain that once you get that cold, cold must just feel cold. And now I can say, YES! -44 with wind chill of -71 is breathtakingly cold, and I mean that literally. We have an arctic entry to our house that isn't heated, but is obviously warmer than outside. When I step into that entry my whole body tells me that stepping outside is a bad idea. And when I open that outside door and step out, for a split second I can't breathe. I have to make a conscious decision to take a breath. Your nose hairs freeze instantly and almost painfully. -15 is a cakewalk compared to -44. -15 is refreshingly brisk; -44 is serious, protect yourself from frostbite kind of business. Kudos to all who live in Fairbanks and experience colder temperatures in the interior! The difference, of course, is that we have this kind of weather for a lot longer. As a photographer, though, I feel drawn to the outdoors in these kind of temperatures. You can SEE the cold in the air. Any particulate matter in the air stays close to the ground creating a haze (granted, not great for air quality), ice crystals hang in the air, and the low angle of the sun creates beautifully soft colors that you just don't see many other places on the globe.
Of course, when it's this cold out you get clear skies. On any clear night in Barrow, there's a chance of seeing the aurora borealis. Even on inactive nights, the auroral band still sits above Barrow. While we're not likely to get the kind of fantastic displays seen further south (we're actually a little too far north for optimum activity), we still have an excellent chance of seeing something ethereally beautiful. The night of the 25th was a great night for aurora watching and my husband and I donned our cold weather gear to be outside for an hour or so and watch them. And yes, it's worth braving the cold to see them.
Plus, in January there's an excellent chance that if you walk around town you'll see something along the lines of a frozen caribou being used as a lawn ornament... and who doesn't want to see that?! So if you want the the quintessential Arctic experience, come visit us in January and you'll come close to winning the respect of those of us who call this place home!
Bring it, February!