What To Know About 40 Below

     One of the biggest questions I get from prospective students from outside of Alaska is this: “How cold is it up there and what should I do to prepare?” Allow me to write and shed a little light on the plight of the freezing white so that you might avoid frostbite.
     As America’s arctic university, UAF is home to extreme subzero temperatures. It can get as cold as -51 Celsius (-60 Fahrenheit). More commonly, it gets to around -40 degrees. Did you notice that I didn’t specify a temperature scale for -40 degrees? Before I go any further, I’m going to say that I am a fan of centigrade temperatures. Fortunately for you, -40 degrees Celsius is the same as -40 degrees Fahrenheit, thanks to the way the two temperature scales work out. Most people simply refer to this particular temperature as 40 below.
     When your thermometer reads -40 degrees, you should probably get a new thermometer. Most thermometers use mercury as their fluid indicator. Unfortunately, mercury freezes at about -38 degrees Celsius. Instead you might consider an alcohol thermometer, which won’t freeze until -128 Celsius, which you shouldn’t have to worry about. Are you starting to see how intense 40 below is?
     In order to prepare for this intense cold, there are a few things you should keep in mind. At 40 below, human skin can freeze almost instantly if exposed for too long. Minor cases of frostbite are common in Fairbanks. You’ll need warm clothing that covers most, if not all, of your skin. It doesn’t have to be fancy and expensive. Just about any sporting goods store will have appropriate clothing. You may even get lucky at a thrift shop and find some awesome alpaca duds. Speaking of that, you probably weren’t able to bring your family alpaca up with you, so you probably need a different mode of transportation.
     Before you bring a car up to Fairbanks, understand that you will need to put a good amount of money into it if you want it to survive the cold. If you’ve already brought your car up before reading this, don’t worry, most of the things required are one-time purchases.
     Most of the auto shops in Fairbanks offer general “winterization” packages that are designed to prepare your vehicle for the cold. If you are more of a do-it-yourself person (or are interested in what a “winterization” package contains), there are a few things you’ll need to purchase and install. Most motor oil and other vehicle fluids freeze at 40 below. The first thing you’ll want to do is get ALL of your fluids changed with appropriately temperature-rated fluids. You’ll also want to make sure that your tires are rated for extreme cold temperatures; tires will shatter into pieces while you are driving if they aren’t rated for the cold. Two of the most important things to get your car are a block (engine) and battery heater. You will plug these in (using an extension cord) when you are parked at one of the many outdoor electric outlets in Fairbanks (just about every public parking lot provides these outlets). While plugged in, the block and battery heaters will keep your engine and battery from freezing (thus keeping your car able to start). Another awesome (but not completely necessary) item to get is an auto-start system so that you can start your car remotely from the warm inside. There are a few good places in Fairbanks to get one installed (Auto Trim Design is one). Another option (if you have two keys for your car) is to run out, start the car with one key, lock it with the other and then run back inside. This decreases the chance of someone stealing your car while it is started with a key in it. Another thing to note is that you will be using more gas than normal to keep your car warm. Now that your car is prepared, you should be prepared as well.
     If you ever plan on doing driving trips to places like Anchorage or Wasilla or even Chena Hot Springs, you should have a small emergency kit in your car. It’s a good idea to be prepared in case icy roads get the best of you or someone else. Always try to keep some blankets, extra warm clothes, matches, candles, a first aid kit, a flashlight or two, a shovel, and some food and water in your car. While you CAN own a car and drive it in 40 below, it is generally a good idea to NOT drive when it is that cold unless you have to.
     If you don’t have a car or a friend with a car, don’t fret! Fairbanks is full of other transportation options. If you enjoy riding a bike, you may do so for short distance travel, but it is not a good idea to go very far unless you are EXTREMELY well clothed. If you have neither a car nor a bike, you can always take advantage of Fairbanks’ awesome public transportation. The UAF campus is home to a series of bus stops, a few of which are enclosed and heated. There are several bus routes that can take you to any part of campus, and a few city buses also stop at UAF and can take you to places outside of campus.
     Now that all of the serious stuff is out of the way, let’s talk a little bit about ENJOYING the extreme cold. The cold doesn’t have to be a daunting thing all the time. There are actually a lot of things that you can do in 40 below that you can’t do anywhere else.
     Forty below is the ultimate freezing point of water. While water normally freezes at 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit), there are still usually microscopic drops of water that won’t freeze until it gets much colder. Forty below is the point where this extra unfrozen water finally freezes. This is why there is no precipitation when it is that cold, because the water isn’t in a liquid state so that it can rain or even snow. Because of this cool fact, you can take a pot of boiling water and throw it outside and watch it freeze almost instantly and turn to an icy fog and float away. You can also blow bubbles and watch them freeze and catch them in your hand without them popping. Try leaving a banana or egg or watermelon outside for a while until it freezes and then hit it with a hammer. Put various things outside and watch how they react. It’s a lot of fun.
     The last and probably best (and craziest) thing to do in 40 below is to join the Forty Below Club, a club of elite and brave students who are willing to brave the cold and stand in front of the school’s giant temperature sign and have their picture taken while wearing nothing but their underwear. The Forty Below Club is one of UAF’s oldest traditions, and is a blast!
     The cold of 40 below is an integral part of the UAF experience, and although many people view it as a negative, it can be bearable and even exciting and fun with the right mindset. So go out, get some warm clothes, get (half) naked, and enjoy the cold!

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