What Does Minus 40 Look Like? Warm Memories of Extreme Cold.

Winter frosted trees, setting moon, and morning alpenglow in Copper River Basin near Glenallen, Alaska

My “coldest” image, I think. This was a moonset and morning alpenglow at about minus 50 west of Glenallen, Alaska in the Copper River Basin. The soft arctic alpenglow at high latitudes is the most ethereal I’ve seen. I had an auxiliary battery pack that I had to keep under my parka. This was hard wired to the camera. This is the only way to keep the camera operating in extreme cold.

First, a little background story about my early Alaska days.

A client recently expressed interest in images of bitter cold. Not much of that in Northern New Mexico and western Colorado Valley this winter. I am planning a late winter trip to Alaska this year. But, I always keep up with what’s happening with winter up there.

I saw something I hadn’t seen in a while. Interior temperatures hit minus 60 the last few days of January. Minus 40’s and 50’s are common but minus 60’s have been rare in this era of climate change. The National Weather Service office even mentioned how this January was similar to the winter of 89-90.

The winter of 1989/1990 was my second winter in Alaska and I remember it well. The Army sent me camping in the Interior in January and again in March! And the coldest air of the winter hit while we were camping. I should know. I was part of an Air Force weather detachment that participated in Army exercises and made official weather observations.

The first night was only like minus 45 and we had minus 40 and colder for the entire two weeks we were out. We were lucky as we were in the hills above Delta Junction and thus a little warmer. Some of the lowest valley locations, like Nenana, south of Fairbanks, hit minus 71. Even east Anchorage got close to minus 40 that January.

Being in air that cold is just painful. It hurts to breath. It feels like slivers of broken glass in your nostrils when you inhale. When you walk it feels like the wind is blowing because the air is incredibly dense. Normally cushy vehicle seats feel like slabs of concrete. Alkaline batteries don’t work. For cheap amusement we’d throw a cup of hot liquid up in the air and it would never hit the ground as it would just freeze into ice crystals.

What does all this have to do with photography? Well something happened that first night I’ll never forget. I saw my first real aurora borealis display and it blew me away. It was a brilliant emerald green display over a moonlit landscape of fresh sparkling arctic snow.

I tried photographing them. They sucked. It was my first time. It was 40 below. I was still an amateur and I was working the graveyard shift out of a tent on an Army field trip – not exactly ideal conditions for photography. But, it sealed my interest in photographing the aurora borealis.

Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) over Kathleen River, Kluane National Park, Yukon Territory, Canada

This is one of my favorite and my most commercially successful aurora borealis image. This is from Kluane National Park in the Yukon the 3rd week of March. This is the Kathleen River just downstream from the outlet of Kathleen Lake. The lake is very deep and upwelling prevents the first stretch of river from freezing. The shot took place around 3AM on a full moon night. It was balmy and only a few degrees below zero.

After active duty was over in 1992 I made journeys into the extreme cold of Interior Alaska on my own terms trying to photograph the aurora.

I’ve made some successful aurora images in winter, but my favorite and coldest photo was of a morning moon and alpenglow in a black spruce forest east of Glenallen which was minus 50 that morning. I’d been up most of the night waiting for an aurora that never materialized.

For a while there was something alluring about enduring extreme weather painful as it was. But I learned this long ago: Simply enduring adverse conditions doesn’t make your images more creative. There is no correlation between degree of difficulty and creativity. However, when you make a great or even good image during challenging environmental conditions it makes it more satisfying.

P.S: Here are some geeky weather facts.

Arctic airmasses are very shallow and dense, usually having extreme temperature inversions. So the coldest air is in the LOWEST elevations such as valley floors.

Minus 40 is where Celsius and Fahrenheit are equal i.e. -40F = -40C

Ice fog is a purely man made phenomena occurring during arctic air in settlements, villages and urban areas. At temperatures in the minus 20’s and colder air cannot hold any moisture. So moisture from internal combustion engine exhaust and exhaust from residential and commercial gas fired furnaces is enough to generate incapacitating fog that remains trapped under sharp inversions. Ice fog can reduce visibility to no more than 100 meters sometimes, but is usually no more than a hundred feet thick vertically.

At minus 20 and colder, exposed flesh can literally freeze, i.e. your nose and finger tips can turn into blocks of ice—not good!

Need more? Check out Jim Green’s Alaska Weather blog. He produces a yearly wall calendar called ‘Alaska Weather Calendar’.

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