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Yukon - the Coldest Place in North America

Written by Major Matthias Joost on 15 January 2012.

SnagThe record for the coldest recorded temperature in North America is held by a tiny locale in the Yukon, at-81.4° Fahrenheit (-63° Celsius). Snag, 30 kms east of the Alaska-Yukon border and 25 kms north of the Alaska Highway had an aviation connection when the record was set on 3 February 1947.  

Snag was created as an emergency landing field as part of the Northwest Staging Route. Built in 1942, it was manned by RCAF civilian and military personnel who operated the powerhouse, manned the radio, kept the runway functional, flattening the snow in the winter and conducted all the other jobs required to keep an airfield going. The Department of Transport also had meteorological personnel at the detachment. In the winter of 1946-47, these personnel numbered two RCAF personnel, eight RCAF civilians and 10 DOT employees.  

Snag is ideally located for producing icy temperatures. It is situated on a plateau in a large bowl-shaped valley. The cold air generated on the surrounding mountains Click for Larger Imageflows down onto this plateau, while the height of the mountains to the south block milder air from the Gulf of Alaska, but allows frigid air from the north and west to move into the valley.  

Prior to the winter of 1946-47, the previous accepted record low for North America was – 78.5° (all temperatures in Fahrenheit) set at Fort Good Hope in the Northwest Territories in December 1910, although this has now been discredited. The currently accepted record prior to 1947 was a low of –78° at Fort Vermillion, Alberta, set on 11 January 1911. Starting in mid-January 1947, the weather throughout the Yukon began to turn quite cold. Beginning on 27 January, a high pressure system stayed put bringing with it a large cold air mass with calm winds and clear skies, setting records that still stand to this day.  

Snag first experienced the cold on the night of 15–16 January when the overnight temperature dropped from –17° the previous night to –44° and was at –66° by the 19th. Several days of warmer nights came along before the nighttime temperatures dropped again, this time to –73° in the early hours of the 27th. Only once in this period was the daytime high above –20°; most of the time being below –30°. Normal low temperatures for the period are –32°.  The record cold snap produced not one but three records in the space of a week. In the early hours of 30 January, the temperature was recorded at –78.7°. This created some interest in the outside world as Air Commodore Gordon called on 31 January about the record, with Paul Fox of the Toronto Star calling later in the day to talk about the cold snap. Despite the cold, there was some excitement among station personnel about having set a new record. The station diary noted optimistically that the cold snap was starting to break as the temperature for that morning was only –73°.  

Life at these temperatures was not easy. The detachment personnel normally kept  active by skiing and hunting. With no large towns nearby, they had to rely upon their own means for entertainment, or on the movies that the regular RCAF flights brought. However, with daytime highs around –60°, the only outside activities were to check the dogs and bring in the firewood that kept the stoves going in the two barracks, the mess hall and the radio station. As for the regular RCAF flights, at these cold temperatures the aircraft of the period did not fly.  

The cold snap, so optimistically predicted to be over, was not however, so ready to give up its hold. On 2 February, the overnight temperature dropped to –82.6°. This was an estimate as the alcohol-based thermometer was only gradated to –80°. As the detachment record put it, “All of personnel are intensely interested in beating Snags [sic] previous cold weather record again.” They didn’t have to wait long, and they knew it would be a very cold night as the air outside became drier. On the morning of the 3rd, Chief Meteorologist Gordon Toole checked his instruments and read what appeared to be –83°. As the pen would not make a mark on the instrument, he had to resort to using a file to mark the low temperature.  

archive1 215x336stThis new record made the evening papers in Montreal, Toronto and other places across Canada, making page one on some papers. Calls were made to the small detachment in what was then mid-afternoon in Snag, requesting interviews. Gordon Toole spoke about what the cold did to the air and your breath, and with some amusement, spoke of the men of RCAF Detachment Aishihik, about 200 kms away, who were complaining of being at -70°. On Thursday, 6 February, an aircraft arrived with RCAF and other public affairs personnel to set up a radio broadcast on the detachment’s activities during the cold weather. The next day CBC and NBC carried a live radio show; however, by then the cold weather had broken. The morning low was a balmy –36° and the daytime high – 13°. Only once in the next month would the thermometer dip below –30°.  

As for the thermometer that recorded the new North American low temperature record, it was flown out on 25 February to be tested at a laboratory in Toronto. Based on these tests, the temperature was shown to have been –81.4°. The aboriginal village of Snag, which lay downhill from the airstrip, was perhaps even colder, being lower down in the valley. Mayo, in central Yukon, may have been colder still, but their records, along with their weather observatory, were destroyed in a fire on 15 February. Since then, several places have come close, with Prospect Creek, Alaska descending to –79.8° on 23 January 1971, but nobody has beaten this 65 year-old record.

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