Fairbanks is the largest city in the Interior region of Alaska. 2018 estimates put the population of the city proper at 31,516, and the population of the Fairbanks North Star Borough at 97,121, making it the second most populous metropolitan area in Alaska (after Anchorage). The Metropolitan Statistical Area encompasses all of the Fairbanks North Star Borough and is the northernmost Metropolitan Statistical Area in the United States, located 196 driving miles (or 140 air miles) south of the Arctic Circle. Fairbanks is home to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the founding campus of the University of Alaska system.
The fledgling settlement of Fairbanks as it appeared in 1903. The buildings shown are likely those of E. T. Barnette’s trading post.
Although there is no known permanent Alaska Native settlement at the site of Fairbanks, Athabascan peoples have used the area for thousands of years. An archaeological site excavated on the grounds of the University of Alaska Fairbanks uncovered a Native camp about 3,500 years old, with older remains found at deeper levels. From evidence gathered at the site, archaeologists surmise that Native activities in the area were limited to seasonal hunting and fishing as frigid temperatures precluded berry gathering . In addition, archaeological sites on the grounds of nearby Fort Wainwright date back well over 10,000 years. Arrowheads excavated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks site matched similar items found in Asia, providing some of the first evidence that humans arrived in North America via the Bering Strait land bridge in deep antiquity.
Captain E. T. Barnette founded Fairbanks in August 1901 while headed to Tanacross (or Tanana Crossing, where the Valdez–Eagle trail crossed the Tanana River), where he intended to set up a trading post. The steamboat on which Barnette was a passenger, the Lavelle Young, ran aground while attempting to negotiate shallow water. Barnette, along with his party and supplies, were deposited along the banks of the Chena River 7 miles (11 km) upstream from its confluence with the Tanana River. The sight of smoke from the steamer’s engines caught the attention of gold prospectors working in the hills to the north, most notably an Italian immigrant named Felice Pedroni (better known as Felix Pedro) and his partner Tom Gilmore. The two met Barnette where he disembarked and convinced him of the potential of the area. Barnette set up his trading post at the site, still intending to eventually make it to Tanacross. Teams of gold prospectors soon congregated in and around the newly founded Fairbanks; they built drift mines, dredges, and lode mines in addition to panning and sluicing.
After some urging by James Wickersham, who later moved the seat of the Third Division court from Eagle to Fairbanks, the settlement was named after Charles W. Fairbanks, a Republican senator from Indiana and later the twenty-sixth Vice President of the United States, serving under Theodore Roosevelt during his second term.
In these early years of settlement, the Tanana Valley was an important agricultural center for Alaska until the establishment of the Matanuska Valley Colonization Project and the town of Palmer in 1935. Agricultural activity still occurs today in the Tanana Valley, but mostly to the southeast of Fairbanks in the communities of Salcha and Delta Junction. During the early days of Fairbanks, its vicinity was a major producer of agricultural goods. What is now the northern reaches of South Fairbanks was originally the farm of Paul J. Rickert, who came from nearby Chena in 1904 and operated a large farm until his death in 1938. Farmers Loop Road and Badger Road, loop roads north and east (respectively) of Fairbanks, were also home to major farming activity. Badger Road is named for Harry Markley Badger, an early resident of Fairbanks who later established a farm along the road and became known as “the Strawberry King”. Ballaine and McGrath Roads, side roads of Farmers Loop Road, were also named for prominent local farmers, whose farms were in the immediate vicinity of their respective namesake roads. Despite early efforts by the Alaska Loyal League, the Tanana Valley Agriculture Association and William Fentress Thompson, the editor-publisher of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, to encourage food production, agriculture in the area was never able to fully support the population, although it came close in the 1920s.
The construction of Ladd Army Airfield starting in 1939, part of a larger effort by the federal government during the New Deal and World War II to install major infrastructure in the territory for the first time, fostered an economic and population boom in Fairbanks which extended beyond the end of the war. In the 1940s the Canol pipeline extended north from Whitehorse for a few years. The Haines – Fairbanks 626 mile long 8″ petroleum products pipeline was constructed during the period 1953-55. The presence of the U.S. military has remained strong in Fairbanks. Ladd became Fort Wainwright in 1960; the post was annexed into Fairbanks city limits during the 1980s.
Fairbanks suffered from several floods in its first seven decades, whether from ice jams during spring breakup or heavy rainfall. The first bridge crossing the Chena River, a wooden structure built in 1904 to extend Turner Street northward to connect with the wagon roads leading to the gold mining camps, often washed out before a permanent bridge was constructed at Cushman Street in 1917 by the Alaska Road Commission. On August 14, 1967, after record rainfall upstream, the Chena began to surge over its banks, flooding almost the entire town of Fairbanks overnight. This disaster led to the creation of the Chena River Lakes Flood Control Project, which built and operates the 50-foot-high (15 m) Moose Creek Dam in the Chena River and accompanying 8-mile-long (13 km) spillway. The project was designed to prevent a repetition of the 1967 flood by being able to divert water in the Chena upstream from Fairbanks into the Tanana River, thus bypassing the city.
Fairbanks is in the central Tanana Valley, straddling the Chena River near its confluence with the Tanana River. Immediately north of the city is a chain of hills that rises gradually until it reaches the White Mountains and the Yukon River. The city’s southern border is the Tanana River. South of the river is the Tanana Flats, an area of marsh and bog that stretches for more than 100 miles (160 km) until it rises into the Alaska Range, which is visible from Fairbanks on clear days. To the east and west are low valleys separated by ridges of hills up to 3,000 feet (910 m) above sea level.
The Tanana Valley is crossed by many low streams and rivers that flow into the Tanana River. In Fairbanks, the Chena River flows southwest until it empties into the Tanana. Noyes Slough, which heads and foots off the Chena River, creates Garden Island, a district connected to the rest of Fairbanks by bridges and culverted roads.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has an area of 32.7 square miles (85 km2); 31.9 square miles (83 km2) of it is land and 0.8 square miles (2.1 km2) of it (2.48%) is water.
The city is extremely far north, being close to 16 parallels north of the Pacific border between the U.S. and Canada. It is on roughly the same parallel as the northern Swedish city of Skellefteå and Finnish city of Oulu. On account of its warm summers, however, Fairbanks is south of the arctic tree line.
Fairbanks’ climate is classified as subarctic (Köppen Dfc close to Dwc), with long cold winters and short warm summers. October through January are the snowiest months, and snow is limited from February to May. On average, the season’s first snow falls on September 21, the first inch of snow accumulates by October 8 and the last inch of snow falls on April 27. The last flurries happen in April on average, but it occasionally does flurry in May. The snowpack is established by October 18, on average, and remains until April 23. Snow occasionally arrives early and in large amounts. On September 13, 1992, 8 inches (20 cm) of snow fell in the city, bending trees still laden with fall leaves. That September was also one of the snowiest on record, as 24 inches (61 cm) fell, compared to a median of only 0.3 inches or 0.0076 metres during the month. October and November are the snowiest months, whilst in contrast, March and April are not very snowy, as these are typically very dry months in central Alaska. The snowiest season has been from July 1990 to June 1991 with 147.3 inches (3.74 m), whilst the least snowy was from July 1918 to June 1919 with only 12.0 inches (0.30 m).
The average first and last dates with a freezing temperature are September 9 and May 15, respectively, allowing a growing season of 116 days, although freezes have occurred in June, July, and August and the last light frost is often in early June and the first light fall frost is often in late August or early September.
Fairbanks is the coldest large city in the U.S.; normal monthly mean temperatures range from −7.9 °F (−22.2 °C) in January to 62.5 °F (16.9 °C) in July. On average, temperatures reach −40 °F (−40 °C) and 80 °F (27 °C) on 7.3 and 13 days annually, respectively, and the last year that failed to reach the former mark was 2016. Between 1995 and 2008, inclusive, Fairbanks failed to record a temperature of 90 °F or 32 °C. The highest recorded temperature in Fairbanks was 99 °F (37 °C) on July 28, 1919, compared to the Alaska-wide record high temperature of 100 °F (38 °C), recorded in Fort Yukon. The lowest was −66 °F (−54 °C) on January 14, 1934. The warmest calendar year in Fairbanks was 1926, when the average annual temperature was 32.4 °F (0.2 °C), while the coldest was 1956 with an annual mean temperature of 21.3 °F (−5.9 °C). The warmest month has been July 1975 with a monthly mean of 68.4 °F (20.2 °C) and the coldest January 1906 which averaged −36.4 °F (−38.0 °C). Low temperatures below 0 °F or −18 °C have been recorded in every month outside June through September. The record cold daily maximum is −58 °F (−50 °C) on January 18, 1906, and the record warm daily minimum is 76 °F (24 °C) on June 26, 1915; the only other occurrence of a 70 °F (21 °C) daily minimum was June 25, 2013 in the midst of a particularly warm summer.
These widely varying temperature extremes are due to three main factors: temperature inversions, daylight, and wind direction. In winter, Fairbanks’ low-lying location at the bottom of the Tanana Valley causes cold air to accumulate in and around the city. Warmer air rises to the tops of the hills north of Fairbanks, while the city itself experiences one of the biggest temperature inversions on Earth. Heating through sunlight is limited because of Fairbanks’s high-latitude location. At the winter solstice, the center of the sun’s disk is less than two degrees over the horizon (1.7 degrees) at the local noon (not the time zone noon). Fairbanks experiences 3 hours and 41 minutes of sunlight on December 21 and 22. At the summer solstice, about 182 days later, on June 20 and 21, Fairbanks receives 21 hours and 49 minutes of sunlight. After sunset, twilight is bright enough to allow daytime activities without any electric lights, since the center of the sun’s disk is just 1.7 degrees below horizon. During winter, the direction of the wind also causes large temperature swings in Fairbanks. When the wind blows from any direction but the south, average weather ensues. Wind from the south can carry warm, moist air from the Gulf of Alaska, greatly warming temperatures. When coupled with a chinook wind, temperatures well above freezing often result: for example, in the record warm January 1981, Fairbanks’ average maximum was 28.7 °F (−1.8 °C) and 15 days had a maximum above freezing, whilst during a spell of sustained chinook winds from December 4 to 8, 1934 the temperature topped 50 °F or 10 °C for five consecutive days.
In addition to the chinook wind, Fairbanks experiences a handful of other unusual meteorological conditions. In summer, dense wildfire smoke accumulates in the Tanana Valley, affecting the weather and causing health concerns. When temperature inversions arise in winter, heavy ice fog often results. Ice fog occurs when air is too cold to absorb additional moisture, such as that released by automobile engines or human breath. Instead of dissipating, the water freezes into microscopic crystals that are suspended in the air, forming fog. Another one of Fairbanks’ unusual occurrences is the prevalence of the aurora borealis, commonly called the northern lights, which are visible on average more than 200 days per year in the vicinity of Fairbanks. The northern lights are not visible in the summer months due to the 24 hour daylight of the midnight sun. Fairbanks also has extremely low seasonal lag; the year’s warmest month is July, which averages only 2.1 °F (1.2 °C) warmer than June. Average daily temperatures begin to fall by late July and more markedly in August, which on average is 4.3 °F (2.4 °C) cooler than June.
From 1949 to 2018, Fairbanks’s mean annual temperature has risen by 3.9 °F (2.2 °C), a change comparable to the Alaska-wide average; winter was the season with the highest increase, at 8.1 °F (4.5 °C), while autumn had the smallest, at only 1.5 °F (0.83 °C). However, the mean annual temperature increase from 1976 to 2018 in Fairbanks stood at a more moderate 0.7 °F (0.39 °C); this stepwise temperature change, also observed elsewhere in Alaska, is explained by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation shifting from a negative phase to a positive phase from 1976 onward.