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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Tips On The Cold From An Alaskan

In Fairbanks, Alaska, it's not uncommon for parking lots to have plug-in stations, to keep vehicle engines warm. (ffg/Flickr)

In Fairbanks, Alaska, it’s not uncommon for parking lots to have plug-in stations, to keep vehicle engines warm. (ffg/Flickr)

A few days ago, we did a story about the harsh effect the cold was having on cars, and our Canadian colleague mentioned that in most places in Canada, there are places where you can plug in to your car to keep things from freezing while you shop or run errands.

Shortly after, we received an e-mail from Alaskan listener Katy Quinn in Fairbanks. “Alaska has particular expertise in arctic survival,” she wrote. So we thought we’d ask her for some tips on facing this kind of cold on a daily basis. She joins Here & Now’s Robin Young.


  • Katy Quinn, resident of Fairbanks, Alaska.



Well, there have been those who think a polar vortex is something television weather people made up, to which Al Roker of the "Today" show responded by bringing in his old college textbook, turning to the definition of a polar vortex and then declaring...


AL ROKER: So for all the doubters out there: Stuff it!

YOUNG: Well, there are also Americans who say, cold, what cold? Earlier this week we talked with a reporter from Kansas City who told us about putting cardboard in his car engine to keep cold air from coming in through the grill. And then our Canadian colleague Karen mentioned that in most places in Canada there are places where you can plug in your car to keep things from freezing while you shop or run errands.

Shortly after, we received an email from Katy Quinn in Fairbanks, Alaska, who said we do that stuff all the time. So we decided to call Katy Quinn up. She's on the line. And Katy, you said cars in Alaska have something called winter fronts. What's that?

KATY QUINN: That's what the cardboard is that people are talking about. It just helps the engine stay warmer.

YOUNG: And you also say that you have plug-in stations everywhere: stores; schools; homes. How does that work?

QUINN: Yeah, and that's just to power the block, oil pan and battery heaters. We usually plug in at 10 below or colder, and it's, you know, a much better alternative, of course, than leaving your vehicle idling. You know, people here take cold weather preparedness very seriously. It's, you know, a matter of life and death here. So it's always best to prepare for the worst.

YOUNG: Well, especially since, as you write us, you listen to us every morning, which we so appreciate, as you drive to daycare and work in sometimes 50-below or colder weather, bundled up with your 19-month-old trying to look through a tiny section of defrosted windshield and trying to keep an eye out for moose.


QUINN: Yes, it's not uncommon. You know, our record low here is 66 below, and that's - you know, you can blow bubbles, and they'll freeze, or throw a cup of warm water up in the air, and it'll disappear before it hits the ground.

YOUNG: Oh, have you seen some of the YouTubes?

QUINN: Yeah.

YOUNG: People have been trying that, and instead water is falling on them. But in other words, this is serious business, and you are prepared. But there's one thing that really jumped out at us. You say in the FBKS, the Fairbanks School District, kids, including kindergarteners, go outside for recess until it's minus 20.

QUINN: Yes, they do, and they stay outside before and after the bell unless it's 20 below or colder. And it's funny, like after a stretch of long cold, and it's finally warming up, you'll hear the kids go on about how warm it is to each other. And school closures don't ever occur either due to cold temperatures or snow. It's only if it warms up or rains, or if the power is out for extended periods, which can be really dangerous for people, so...

YOUNG: Yeah, not like minus-20-degree weather.


YOUNG: Well, it's because you guys are - you're prepared.

QUINN: Yeah, and you know, I've learned from experience. A big one is, you know, always have a decent tank of gas. I was on empty when I got a flat at 40 below outside of town, and I had to turn off the car while I waited for nearly an hour for help to arrive. So that's when, you know, like extra gloves, fleece, sleeping bags, hand-foot warmers came in handy.

And also, you know, babies and toddlers are really sensitive to the cold. You know, going from a building to the car, you know, even with their snowsuit on and stuff, put fleece around them so that they're totally covered up. That's another good thing to do.

YOUNG: Well, as you well know, as you take your toddler to daycare in the morning. Katy Quinn of Fairbanks, Alaska, thank you so much.

QUINN: Thank you, and yeah, I think I'll take advantage of our balmy five-above temps and go on a birthday snow machine ride tonight. So...

YOUNG: That's right, happy birthday.

QUINN: Thank you, what an exciting way to start the day.

YOUNG: For us too, with a glimpse of Fairbanks. Thank you.

QUINN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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  • A2NC

    Katy did a great job representing Fairbanks! But, it’s not always -20 to -50 degrees in Fairbanks. Most times the temps hover anywhere between -10 and 10 above from November through March. When it gets extremely cold, though, it usually tends to get “stuck” there for a few days at a time…and you always need to prepare and dress properly for the weather. Temps in Alaska vary just like anywhere else in the lower 48 dependent on the weather patters. Example…the high on 12/25/13 was -30; a week later on 1/1/14, the high was 20 above.

    If you want to see what it’s like in downtown Fairbanks, check out the web cam at the “Daily News-Miner” (local newspaper) at http://www.newsminer.com/arctic_cam/. They’ve got links to other web cams in Fairbanks and from around the state (Denali Park, etc.) at http://www.newsminer.com/arctic_cam/more_webcams/. Be sure to check back in May-August too…the scene will be quite a bit different!

    • Katy

      Thanks! – Unfortunately there was too much to say/explain with too little time about our beloved Tanana Valley. I tried my best at 6:30 am with nerves:) I felt honored to give a shout out on behalf of the ‘Banks! The 49th state is often forgotten by our lower 48 counterparts. Glad to provide a little reminder/insight of the vast state to the North during all this talk about cold temps! Thanks for sharing the links. Yes, Fairbanks is quite different in the summer and, though it’s short, it helps us pull through the winter and keep us all here!

      • Chel

        Thank you Katy,
        It was great to have a little Fairbanks in the world today. We live in a very special place and I am happy you stepped up to share our piece of the world. We are blessed to not have that windchill. We are also blessed to have a great university, fantastic music, culture and out of this world Thai food. Thank you for being a wonderful voice of reason to all the Polar Vortex hype. Oh, and happy birthday- hope the snowmachine ride was a good one.

      • A2NC

        I understand…and you didn’t sound nervous in the slightest…you did a great job (especially with it being the wee hours of the morning)! Hope you had a fantastic birthday too! Warm (but not too warm) wishes for the remainder of the winter, and a wonderful summer season in the near future. :)

  • Auntie Peg

    Well done, Katy Quinn birthday girl!

    • Katy

      Thanks Auntie Peg! It was a fun start to the day!

  • Infogirl

    Check out “Recess at 20 Below” by Cindy Lou Aillaud — the real story on how kids cope with the cold in Alaska!

  • DocB

    Is there a transcript available?

    • Rachel Rohr, Here & Now

      Hi DocB, For some reason the NPR transcript is not populating. We’re looking into it and hope it will be there soon. Best, Rachel Rohr/Web Producer

  • Pam

    Great job Kate and Happy Birthday!!

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