Non-Standard NWS Terminology & Alaskan Winter Storms

After reviewing the results of the ‘small winter storm’ as it was termed by some of the locals and wading through the 12″ to 14″ of accumulated snow around my place two thoughts come to mind:  ‘better late than never’, and ‘be very careful what you wish for…!’.   Even after struggling to walk for just 42 minutes – the short distance I walked would have taken less than 25 minutes in wet or muddy conditions – through roughly 10″ of dense, heavy snow with moderate snow falling on Sunday afternoon I am definitely more of the former than latter.  I’d waited for what seemed like a full month to finally see my first Alaskan snow storm and while it certainly did take its good ole time in arriving when it finally showed up it did so in spades!  I remember briefly commenting last Thursday that NWS had just posted a ‘Winter Weather Advisory’ for this area but were forecast 6″ to 12″ of snow; in SE Michigan a ‘WWA’ is posted for 2″ to 4″ of snow.  What I experienced here would have prompted at minimum a ‘Winter Storm Warning’ and probably a ‘Heavy Snow Warning’ as well.  These discrepancies started me thinking and reflecting upon the fact that even though NWS serves all fifty states and does use the same forecast terminology the actual details associated with said terminology can obviously greatly differ.  Given what I noted a bit earlier in this piece I wonder what a ‘Winter Storm Warning’ would imply up here..?  Maybe high winds and 12″ to 18″ of total snow??  Does a ‘Heavy Snow Warning’ imply in excess of 24″ of the white stuff..?  This weekend’s storm did highlight I have a new set of learnings to digest in an unexpected area – NWS forecast terminology.  Of course this is fine by me as I expected I would have lots to learn as well as ‘re-learn’ regarding life in rural Alaska so I’m more than ready.

This ‘small storm’ was unusual, again in my experience, because there was no wind at all; the heavy, dense snow just landed on anything horizontal and quickly accumulated.  Naturally, this led to a power outage beginning around 15:00 AKST on Sunday and lasting almost six hours.  Here, too, I started thinking – if a small storm dropping a foot of snow across one and a half days could take down the local power grid for six hours what effects will a full-scale Alaskan blizzard have on this area?  We are vulnerable, and I knew this, because our electricity is produced in Palmer which is maybe 65 miles straight line to the SSE.  This means the transmission lines travel through some rugged areas and Wasilla is notorious for their wild winds based upon getting air flow off three different glaciers.  I still have around 19 gallons of gasoline for the generator but now I’m wondering if that would  be sufficient in the event of a truly severe storm.  Sadly up here losing power for days in January when the air temp is -20 F or colder could become life threatening although I will be purchasing an oil drip furnace which operates without electricity and I do have a white gas stove as well.

I’m now beginning to wonder about the ‘wisdom’ of deciding to wait to make any big-ticket purchases until I’d experienced all four seasons.  In one respect it was smart because I was leaning towards purchasing an ATV with a plow before a snow machine even though the locals I’d asked had to a person said get the snow machine first.  Seeing that East Barge still has a foot plus of snow on it one and a half days after the storm moved on makes me wonder if I’ll have reliable winter transportation.  An ATV couldn’t get through much more than a foot of snow and it might really struggle to do that much.  Again, if a ‘small storm’ could basically close the side roads for multiple days what would a much more severe storm do to transportation?  Although I drove my Escape around in the height of the storm Sunday afternoon with around 10 inches of snow on the ground I’m unsure I can get the SUV out of the driveway now.  If I cannot I currently have no other means of making the trip into Talkeetna for my Wednesday and Thursday evening local newscasts.  The obvious choice is a snow machine; even multiple feet of accumulation will not stop such a vehicle.  However, I can expect to drop a minimum of $10k for a new unit; my mechanical skills are poor enough I feel I must purchase either a new unit or a minimum mileage used model with a dealer warranty.

In keeping with the theme of learnings regarding rural Alaskan living I sure now understand why the locals all have snow shoes!  During the height of the snow storm I took the dogs out for a walk; I used my new Kenentech boots and they did yeoman’s service; they will be my ‘go to’ winter boots.  However, given the depth of the snow – around 10″ – and the consistency – dense and heavy – I really struggled.  A stretch of East Barge I can normally walk in less than 25 minutes required 42 minutes even walking in the ruts left by an earlier vehicle.  By the time I returned here I was beat and even the dogs were showing some fatigue.  I cannot imagine trying to walk any distance in a foot of this snow yet by January there could easily be two to three times that amount on the ground.  Yesterday I tried out my brand new MSR snow shoes and managed to stay upright and started to get a feel for the rhythm which is so obviously necessary if one is going to walk far.  Once again, I have a lot of learning to do but it will be fun.

I knew moving up here would be a true adventure and I have not been disappointed to this point and its only been a bit more than three months.  I truly look forward to the upcoming years as I fully expect I’ll need such amounts of time to really settle into rural Alaskan living; there’s just that much to experience and learn…or ‘re-learn’!  I’ve seen my first Alaskan snow storm and remain mightily impressed; while a bit daunting this also leaves me hungering for more.  And that’s just the way it should be..!

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Early morning light just beginning to highlight the 12″ plus from November’s first snow storm.

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