The Fate of a Rubber Bumper at -55°F

Fairbanks, Alaska gives new meaning to the word cold. The winter of 1989 still numbs my mind. There was, I thought, a distinct possibility I’d been transplanted to the McMurdo Station on Ross Island in Antarctica while I was asleep. Only at the time, McMurdo was experiencing balmy weather in the 50’s since it was summer at the South Pole in January of ’89. Still, the record low at McMurdo was -59°F. The low that winter in Fairbanks was -55°F. Granted, not the lowest-low of -66°F in 1934. However, at a certain point, it is simply so cold that how cold almost ceases to matter. It was the time of year I wore enough layers to look like the Michelin tire guy. From my mukluks to my wolf ruff parka, I was as ready as I could be for polar weather.

In the 1980’s shock absorbing, black rubberized bumpers were in style. I was driving a car with them during some of those sub-zero days in Fairbanks. As I was backing up I barely clipped a power pole stanchion in a parking lot. Yeah, power poles in parking lots were a thing and I’m sure they still are. Why? So you could plug in the electrical pigtail sticking out the front grille. It connected the car’s battery blanket, oil pan warmer, and circulating pump heater into a power source so your vehicle would start when you left work, home, or after a long stop somewhere. No one wanted auto art in their parking lot for the balance of the winter.

It wasn’t a hard hit. It was something that, in warmer times, might have left a streak on the bumper. Or nothing at all. I got out of the car and walked around to take a gander even though the pole was entirely upright.

There, on the frosty ground, at the base of the metal pole lay the remains of what appeared to be black shards of crystal. The frozen rubberized bumper shattered at the slight impact. Imagine an accident where bumpers vaporized. It would be like watching two VW Vanagon’s having a head-on. Not pretty.

Squatting down, I examined the small, jagged hole. Who knew a rubberized bumper had a crystalline structure when frozen solid? The metal on my International Harvester Scout might have dented, but it would not have broken. After all, they have metal vehicles on the Haul Road and the North Slope that don’t shatter upon impact.

I was young(ish) and very impressed with all the beauty and extremes of Alaska. I still love Alaska with all my heart but don’t think I’d want a repeat of that winter, thank you very much. You can read more about the extreme winter experience of ’89 including the ice-fog extravaganza in Recollections of a Tundra Dancer (out soon).

Sure wish it would have occurred to me to get a camera and take a photo of the jagged hole. I did have a Polaroid and probably an Instamatic. Film was expensive and a good shot of a black hole was not guaranteed. I’m not sure the Polaroid would not have frozen before I could have gotten inside.

According to the NOAA/NWS Windchill chart below without any wind at -45°F you are at flash freeze status within scant minutes. I knew of an individual who was frostbitten and had to have a couple toes removed as a result of walking from one building to another in downtown Fairbanks during that cold spell. She was wearing summer sandals with exposed toes. Bunny boots or mukluks, people!


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