Alaska has a reputation for being a cold, inhospitable wasteland, and there is some truth to this. While the southern coasts of the state have a more temperate climate, the northern part of the state, dipping into the Arctic Circle, is known for life-threatening, below-freezing weather. Additionally, Alaskan weather is famously unpredictable and can change on a dime, a fact that both Alaskans and tourists should be prepared for.
Alaska is a varied and unique place, ranging from scenic fjords to frozen tundra to impassable mountains. Read on to learn more about the weather and climate of Fairbanks and northern Alaska so you know what to expect during your visit.
Weather in Fairbanks and Northern Alaska
The climate of Alaska is largely shaped by the tilt of the Earth’s axis. You likely already know that during the Earth’s revolution around the sun, the planet’s axis is not fixed, but tilts away or towards the Sun depending on which point it is in its orbit. This process is responsible for creating the seasons because the portion of the planet that is pointed towards the Sun receives more sunlight, creating summer, while the portion of the Earth that is pointed away from the Sun experiences winter due to less sunlight. As the Earth orbits the sun, different parts of the planet receive more or less sunlight depending on where the Earth is.
Seasonal shifts are more extreme the further one gets from the equator, which is the center of the Earth. Because the equator largely gets the same amount of sunlight year-round, it tends to be warm no matter the time of year. The further north or south one goes from the equator, the more dramatic the shifts between summer and winter are, and at the North and South Poles, these shifts become extremely pronounced.
In the case of northern Alaska, this results in short, cool summers that are marked by continuous or near-continuous sunlight as well as long, icy winters where the sun is barely visible or doesn’t rise at all. During the summer, much of Alaska experiences sunlight all day due to the sun not setting at all or twilight being visible due to the sun not setting very far beyond the horizon. This results in extreme differences between the seasons.
During the winter months, the lack of sun exposure results in frigid weather with lots of snow, though this can be mitigated somewhat by ocean currents. Inland Alaska is generally marked by cold temperatures due to a lack of moderating coastal influences. The North Slope of Alaska has some more temperate regions, but some areas of the region, such as the city of Barrow, experience heavy cloud cover and snow despite being by the coast. Barrow has been known to receive snowstorms even during the summer due to its northerly location. Another factor in northern parts of Alaska is wind chill caused by a lack of trees, which further lowers the temperature.
Fairbanks is classified as a subarctic climate, with less extreme weather patterns than other parts of the Alaskan Interior. It is recognized as the coldest large city in the U.S., with average temperatures ranging from a low of eight degrees below zero Fahrenheit in January to a high of 63 degrees Fahrenheit in July. The temperature can dip as low as 40 degrees below zero in the winter or 80 degrees in the summer. The city’s extreme weather shifts are the result of temperature inversions caused by its location in the Tanana Valley and its lack of sun exposure due to its northerly location.
The lack of sunlight in northern Alaska means that the state’s Arctic Ocean coast is full of icebergs, which makes sea travel dangerous outside of the summer months and outright impossible in some cases. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was built in the 1970’s to get around this; oil tankers cannot venture into the Arctic Ocean to retrieve oil from the fields at Prudhoe Bay. Recent improvements in icebreaker technology have allowed some vessels to safely cross the Arctic regardless of the time of year.
Despite this, sea ice is always present in the Arctic, even during the summer, and this makes boat travel in the region somewhat hazardous. In contrast to the South Pole, which is located on the landmass of Antarctica, the North Pole is located on an ever-shifting mass of glaciers that make traveling to it hard and impede the creation of permanent monitoring stations. In recent years, climate change has caused some glaciers to shrink, potentially opening up the Arctic Ocean to resource development and travel via the Northwest Passage.
Due to Alaska’s frigidity, wildlife in the state have evolved a number of features focused on maintaining warmth in cold weather. These include pockets of blubber, thick fur coats, and tiny orifices (ears, eyes, nostrils etc.) that keep heat loss to a minimum. Many Alaskan mammals, such as bears, also hibernate during the winter to conserve energy, while birds are known to migrate south to avoid the cold weather. Trees cannot grow in northern Alaska due to permafrost and excessive chilliness, and travelers to the region can observe the tree line, the point at which trees can no longer grow, by traveling towards the Arctic.
Finally, Alaskan weather is known for being hard to predict. Storms, clouds, and other inclement weather effects can appear out of nowhere. Because of this, travelers to Alaska are advised to wear warm, multi-layered clothing, even if they are visiting during the summer. Despite Alaska’s darkness during the winter, it is still possible to become sunburned due to exposure to the sun. Alaska’s icy climate and remote location have historically impeded human settlement.
While many of the popular myths about Alaska’s climate are true, there is still considerable variation among its many different regions. While the North Slope and Fairbanks may be frigid during the winter, this is not necessarily true of southern coastal cities such as Anchorage and Juneau. Regardless of where you go or what you do in Alaska—or even what time of the year it is—you should protect yourself by bringing warm clothing and other survival necessities. Alaska is safe to visit even during its coldest months provided you pack appropriately, take the necessary precautions, and avoid unnecessary risks.