Tuesday, December 30, 2008


It's so cold out there...

This cold snap comes right on the heels of ten inches of snow on Christmas day. The next morning the sky was clear and we were treated to the first sunny day in weeks (all five hours and forty minutes of it). Still warm enough that day (+20 F) to plow the drive and shovel the deck before the cold settled in that night. Each day it's a little colder. This morning it was -25 F. Tonight we're supposed to see -30. And there's no end in sight.

I just love the sunrises and sunsets this time of year. Of course if the sky is clear it's also going to be very cold... but it's worth it. The night sky starts turning from a shiny black to deep dark blue around 9:00 and gradually lightens through all the shades of purple, blue and yellow until the sun finally appears on the southeast horizon at about 10:30. The cold, dry air intensifies the winter light that is even brighter than normal as it reflects off all that fresh white snow still clinging to all the trees. For the next few hours the sky is so clear, the blue so intense, everything so sharp and so crisp. The low sun creates long shadows. Around 4:00 the sun dips below the southwest horizon leaving another palette of colors ranging from the yellows at the horizon through pink then blue and all the way to the purples in the east. These gradually darken over the next hour as the sky becomes black.

Tonight there was the barest sliver of a new moon in the southern sky that gradually grew brighter in the darkening sky. By 6:00, when I left for our cello group rehearsal the full circumference of the moon was quite visible - earthshine reflecting back off the moon (I'm told). Supposedly the moon is on a rare close approach to the earth, making it appear larger and brighter in the sky. Venus was hovering to the left and above the setting moon.

By the time I left town two hours later and headed south for home, the temperature was already down to -20. As I crossed the first hill blocking the glow of the town's lights behind me, the stars began to pop out from the night sky. I pulled over for a moment, cut my lights and stepped out into the cold - and looked up! All those stars! The moon had set, making Venus appear even brighter in the south. Sadly, no auroras yet; recent sunspot activity has been low.

It was way too cold to stay out for long, so I got back into my warm car and drove the rest of the way home with one eye on the road, another watching out for moose, and yet another looking at the sky.

When I got home and came into my warm haven from the cold, my attention turned back to all those practical things that go along with this cold weather. Checking the faucets to make sure they were all still flowing - just a trickle, but enough to prevent the pipes from freezing. Ordering the poor dog out into the cold for a few minutes one last time. Checking all the doors and windows. Making sure the cars are plugged in. Topping up the humidifier, and refreshing my cello's Dampits. All the while hoping there'd be no power failures overnight that would shut off the water pump and let all the pipes freeze up, not to mention letting the house get cold...

These extreme cold spells usually last only a couple of days. I remember one year we had a three week cold snap that stayed in the -40s, accompanied by an extreme high pressure cell that settled in above the state. The barometric pressure was so high, they had to cancel all the flights for several days after realizing the altimeters weren't calibrated for those pressures. After a while we actually began to hope for clouds...

Wow, this is the Alaska I'd love to see someday. Being there during the summer/early fall just isn't the same. I am surprised one can drive a car in -20 degree weather.
Nice post. You can keep the cold, but I would love to see the stars. We just got our son a beginners reflective scope for Christmas. Cannot wait until we get a nice clear starry night in our part of Midwest suburbia.
I bought a nice telescope ten years ago, but when the sky is clear it's just too darn cold to take it out and use it very often. Nor do I get to use it in the summers, when it is warm enough, thanks to our extended daylight hours.

We're hoping for clear skies early Saturday morning - there's supposed to be a rarely visible meteor shower right before dawn...
I can't even begin to imagine that kind of cold! I get really excited to see a tiny bit of snow....
I can imagine the warmth of your haven home and the stars.
The must look the same in Alaska as in a desert.
Happy New Year!
As a pilot-wannabe, the most exciting part of that was the altimeter issue. Wow! Nicely written post; I felt as if I was there. :)
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