With rain, wind and temperatures pushing into the 40s Thursday in the wake of a month of heavy snowfall, avalanche experts were warning Alaskans about how dangerous the weather can make it to leave the house.
“Heads up Girdwood,” noted an avalanche forecaster in the ski community about 30 miles east of Anchorage. “Roofs are loaded with 2-3 feet of dense snow and rising temperatures above 32F today through Friday will make these unsupported slopes unstable. There is enough snow to bury a child or pet, seriously injure an adult, or damage a vehicle. Talk to your kids and spread the word.”
Girdwood has a sad history with roof avalanches. A roof avalanche just down the Seward Highway in Portage killed 29-year-old Girdwood resident Jeff Nissman in January 2004. An avalanche forecaster himself, he walked out the door of a U.S. Forest Service work center and was buried under an estimated 650-pounds of snow and ice that slid of a metal roof.
Metal roofs are notorious for avalanche, but any snow loaded roof can come down.
An avalanche off a roof in Island Park, Idaho last year buried three children. The youngest among them, a two year old, died. Two men – ages 53 and 56 – died near Creede, Colo., when a roof avalanched on them in 2010.
Dangerous roofs weren’t the only reason to stay home and indoors as a January thaw came storming out of the North Pacific Ocean and into Alaska’s urban core. Anchorage police were warning about slick roads, and the local newspaper was all over the story reporting “Anchorage area roads extra-slick under freezing rain,” although there was little or no freezing rain coming down.
Freezing rain is rain that falls when the air temperature is below freezing. Temperatures in Anchorage on Thursday were four to as much as 11 degrees above freezing. The precipitation that was falling out of the sky was rain. The problem came when it hit the snow-covered and frozen ground.
There it created a thin layer of water on packed snow that was itself nearly ice, and since it is the water atop the ice that makes it slippery, Alaska’s largest city was a great place for slip-sliding away. The motor vehicle accidents were piling up by the hour and hospital emergency rooms were busy with people who tried to get around on foot without cleats.
As for the mountains to the north, south, east and west around the city, almost everyone was avoiding them. The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center Thursday morning issued an avalanche warning that went well beyond its coverage area on the eastern Kenai Peninsula.
“Dangerous avalanche conditions exist in many areas around Southcentral Alaska, including the Anchorage Front Range, Hatcher Pass and southern Kenai Mountains,” it reported in bold type.
That covered just about every area popular with snowmachine riders, skiers and snowboarders within easy reach of the state’s urban core. The avalanche center cautioned against not only steep slopes but run-out areas beneath them.
“This is not a complicated situation,” the detailed report said, again in bold type before suggesting the only way to really manage the problem was to stay home.
The National Weather Service was forecasting temperatures to start dropping back closer to normal through the night Thursday with temperatures down to 15 to 20 degrees with snow showers by Friday night. That should help stabilize the snowpack be it on roof or land.