Winter in the Heart of Alaska

By March in the heart of Alaska, winter—already five months long—still has two months to go. Winter is extremely cold and long.

People and wildlife live here in hard winter conditions many would find difficult to imagine.

Residents travel on a frozen river trail near Selawik National Wildlife Refuge.

The record low temperature in Fort Yukon—a settlement of about 600 people within Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge—is minus 78 degrees Fahrenheit (temperature, not wind chill). If you consider that the record summer high is 100 degrees, this makes for one of the most extreme temperature ranges on Earth (a 178-degree swing).

Many bird, fish and wildlife species spend summer in the heart of Alaska but migrate away when the season turns. Those that stay are biologically adapted to winter. One example of how animals have evolved for winter: Lynx, snowshoe hares and wolves have large feet in proportion to their body size so they can run on top of the snow.

Talk about adaptation. The ptarmigan [pronounced TAR-mi-gen] changes color to blend in with its surroundings. It is pure white in winter and becomes mottled dark and white after the snows melt.

The aurora borealis—or Northern Lights—a phenomenon visible across the heart of Alaska in winter.

No glimpse of winter in Alaska would be complete without a nod to the Iditarod sled dog race. Although the event’s precise trail varies annually depending on snow conditions, the 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome often runs through or adjacent to Innoko, Nowitna and Koyukuk Refuges.

Former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee Aliy Zirkle and her dogs run on the frozen Yukon River across the northern part of Innoko Refuge during the 2012 Iditarod.

Over the past 50 years, Alaska has warmed faster than the rest of the United States. The higher temperatures in Alaska are causing earlier spring snowmelt, reduced sea ice, widespread glacier retreat, insect outbreaks, permafrost thawing and more instances of freezing rain.

A moose along the shore of a partially frozen lake at Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge.

Dress warmly if you go the Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge Winter Visitor Center. As residents know, the first rule of winter in the heart of Alaska is: Bundle up properly. Every time you go out.

Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge Winter Visitor Center at Milepost 175 on the Dalton Highway in Coldfoot.

Yukon River breakup stages

Each spring the frozen rivers of Alaska melt, shift, break up and once again flow as waterways. ‘Winter’ arrives with the start of ice flow on the river, usually around October 1, and ends when the Yukon River breaks about May 15.

As rapidly as daylight fades in fall, it increases in spring.

In Alaska, we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

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