Odds are old Saint Nick was happy to flee the North Pole to make his annual rounds this Christmas. A dirty haze has settled over this part of northern Alaska, hovering over streets named Santa Claus Lane. The New York Times pins the blame on what it calls an "only-in-Alaska" pollution problem: People use old, inefficient wood-burning stoves, and when the smoke goes out their chimneys, frigid temperatures force it back down to ground level. That results in the highest readings in the nation of a pollution measure called PM 2.5, which refers to fine-particulate matter. In fact, the area suffered a record stretch of six consecutive days earlier this month with air deemed unhealthy, reports the Fairbanks News-Miner. This ground-level pollution is seen as particularly dangerous because it can get directly into lungs.
The dirty woodstove problem is particularly pronounced in the Fairbanks-North Pole area, about the size of New Jersey. With cleaner natural gas in short supply and heating oil expensive, wood is the fuel of choice as temperatures hover around minus 20 below. Upgrading to a more efficient wood stove is expensive, even with local government assistance, and many independent Alaskans balk at the cost—and being told what to do. (An education campaign is trying to spread the word that upgrading is actually a wise investment, notes the Frontiersman.) Failing to comply could result in residents being fined, and the borough losing federal transportation funds if the EPA declares the area in violation of the Clean Air Act. "Both sides are digging in their heels," Mayor Karl Kassel tells the Times. (Some in China are buying Canadian air in a can.)