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Published: Tuesday, 1/28/2014 - Updated: 10 months ago

Deep freeze way of life in Alaska, Canadian north

BY ROBERT ZULLO
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

Summer warmth is no good, wrote John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley, without “the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”

By that rationale, expect a saccharine summertime, with another arctic blast hitting roughly the eastern two-thirds of the United States this week, closing schools and courts in Toledo today.

Temperatures were expected to fall to 15 below zero Monday night in Toledo, according to AccuWeather. Today’s low was forecast at -9, with wind chill making it feel as cold as -30.

It would be the second such plunge this month, with the official Toledo temperature having hit record lows of -15 and -14 on Jan. 6 and 7.

Many school districts, Owens Community College, and much of the University of Toledo are closed because of the forecast. Toledo Municipal Court, the Lucas County courthouse, and the juvenile, domestic-relations, and probate courts also said Monday that they would close today.

But as cold-weather hype gripped the United States, Matt Richter, transportation director for the 5,800-student Northern Lights School Division, which includes the city of Cold Lake in the Canadian province of Alberta, chuckled at the forecast.

“That’s balmy,” he said.

Mr. Richter, 44, said the school system, which includes widely dispersed communities about 460 miles north of the Montana border and 182 miles northeast of Edmonton, rarely lets winter weather get in the way of classes.

Northern Lights doesn’t cancel school unless the temperature falls below -40 degrees or there is a wind chill of -49 degrees.

“It’s just a way of life, unless it gets severe,” he said.

“I went to school at minus 53 (-63.4 Fahrenheit) as a kid. You didn’t want to put your ear to the window on the bus because it might freeze.”

Mike Schmetzer, city engineer and public works director for the city of Fairbanks, said the same system sending temperatures here plummeting made it possible for him and his family to eat out on their deck in toasty 51-degree weather.

Mr. Schmetzer grew up in Homestead, Pa., but left for the University of Alaska Anchorage in 1981 and stayed.

“Whenever the central U.S. gets any kind of cold snap, we get unseasonably warm weather here,” Mr. Schmetzer said.

But that’s an aberration 90 miles south of the Arctic Circle, where temperatures routinely fall to 50 below.

“Whenever I talk temperatures, it’s always negative. Because it’s always below zero,” he said.

Schools stay open, though they cancel outdoor recess if it’s colder than 20 below. Other municipal services continue uninterrupted.

“I’m still picking up the garbage at -55. I stop plowing roads at minus 30,” he said. “It’s pretty hard on the plows.”

Trash collectors wear special arctic gear, get warm-up breaks and ride in the cab between stops.

“They’re not hanging off the back of the truck, that’s for sure,” he said.

However, if you take no solace in the fact that people elsewhere are colder, a reprieve may be in sight.

In Punxsutawney, Pa., about 20,000 people are expected to watch Punxsutawney Phil emerge from his burrow on Sunday at Gobbler’s Knob and give his prediction on this winter’s duration.

“Even though it’s been cold lately, it does give people something to do outside and enjoy the winter, since it’s not going anywhere just yet,” said Katie Donald, executive director of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. “We’ll have to see what Phil predicts.”

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Robert Zullo is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

Robert Zullo can be reached at: rzullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909.



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