Alaska snow drought

captureAlaska temperatures are creeping back toward normal as December arrives in the Great, Once-White North, but the snow drought that had “The Weather Channel”in March wondering if 2015-16 was “Alaska’s Weirdest Winter” appears to be underway again.

End of November temperatures have dropped into the normal range, sometimes even a little below, but much of the state is woefully short on snow.


“A good part of November has been super dry,” Daniel Fisher, the snow survey supervisor for the National Resources Conservation Service Alaska, said on Monday.

Where can be found the snow that should now be blanketing the “Great White Silence” of which the legendary American author Jack London wrote at the end of the 1800s?

“Elsewhere,” Fisher said with a laugh.

That’s an understatement.

The Conservation Service’s National Water and Climate Center tracks snow on the ground in Alaska by “water equivalent.” The water equivalent record now puts the area around the state’s largest city with only 13 percent of the normal snow load for the year.

The situation is only slightly better in other areas of the state. Most of the Panhandle is missing about 75 percent of its usual snow. The area north of the Alaska Range on into Fairbanks in the Interior is even worse off than Anchorage; it has only 12 percent of the norm.

The south slope of the Alaska Range down into the Susitna Valley is at 31 percent of normal.

Snowmachine riders, dog mushers, and cross-country skiers are all begging for snow. The only bright spot is the ice forming with the return of cold. It has opened up some extremely good skating in areas of the state dotted with multitudes of ponds, lakes, creeks, sloughs and rivers.


Helen O’Harra stops to capture a photograph of the Knik River valley while skating the frozen waterways near Jim Creek/Doug O’Harra photo

How long this latest snow drought will last is anyone’s guess.

“The (weather) take-away message is that snow chances for interior portions of Southcentral and Southwest Alaska continue to look quite disappointing…,” the National Weather Service’s 7-day outlook was concluding Monday night. “However, precipitation chances along the Northern Gulf coast and Prince William Sound still look promising with these incoming systems.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Fisher.He noted the jet stream – the current of air swirling at 30,000 to 50,000 feet above the planet – has been working against Alaska.

Instead of pushing moisture-laden air from the North Pacific Ocean toward Alaska, the stream has been aiming the precipitation at the Pacific Northwest.

“Washington and Oregon are just getting pounded with moisture,” Fisher said.

Portland got 5 percent of its average annual precipitation on Thanksgiving Day, reported. Washington’s Mount Baker ski area already has more than five and a half feet of snow. About 15 inches was reported to have fallen over the long Thanksgiving weekend.

Alaska’s Alyeska Ski Resort, famous for its normally humongous amounts of snow, has less than two feet at this time.

If Alaskans want to know where their snow went, look to the Cascades.

Fisher said he’s trying to remain optimistic. The state’s heavily populated Southcentral region was snow short last year about this time, too, he said from his office in Palmer, and then a couple big snowstorms rolled in to blanket the Talkeetna, Chugach and Kenai mountains.

Anchorage itself didn’t get all that much snow, but at least the high country looked winter like. Of course, that didn’t last long. By the end of December, temperatures were into the 40s – actually the 50s in some places – and the snow was turning to slush.

Along with the warm temperatures came rain and high winds. The Alaska Climate Research Center’s December 2015 weather summary noted semi-trailers blown off the Portage Glacier Road and wind gusts to 98 mph – hurricane strength – recorded at McHugh Creek along Turnagain Arm between Anchorage and Girdwood.

“The winds continued into the 30th, and the warm air streamed into central Alaska from the storm resulted in new high temperature records on the 30th,” the summary noted. “The high in Fairbanks of 45°F shattered the old record of 35°F from 1982. Flood advisory was issued for (the Kenai Peninsula’s) Anchor River due to ice jams and recent rains.”

Some blamed climate change. Others blamed Alaska, or at least coastal Alaska where the weather is notoriously fickle. Where the warm air of the Pacific Ocean meets the cold air of the Alaska land mass, climate is ever-changing and full of variables, which makes it very hard to predict.

“I’m not actually sure what’s happening,” Fisher said.

He’s not alone.

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