Although it is February 24th in south central Alaska one could be forgiven for being confused when seeing the high temperature break freezing the last eleven consecutive days and huge spans of ice shimmering with liquid water atop their expanses. Indeed, as I contemplate my second Alaskan winter – and I use the term ‘winter’ loosely – I’m once again forced to realize this has been an even milder and drier ‘winter’ than the record-setting warmth that helped the 2013 – 2014 Alaskan winter enter the books as the warmest on record. As of this writing Anchorage, 112 miles to the south, is 30” short of ‘normal’ snow fall and with temps forecast to be in the middle to upper 30’s right into the first week in March there’s not much hope for any near term relief. My own observations show Talkeetna is just 12% of ‘normal’ snow-pack and our ten-day forecast shows no real snow and a lot of temps at or slightly above freezing.
Meanwhile the eastern half of the lower 48 is once again racking up the snow fall totals and seeing some cold weather although nothing like the previous winter’s cold. It doesn’t escape my notice that the past two winters would have been much more to my liking in terms of snow and cold had I remained in SE Michigan as versed with moving to south central Alaska. I understand that one or even two ‘winters that weren’t’ does not validate global warming although after having experienced the past 19 months up here I do not doubt that the climate in this portion of the sub-Arctic is warming. And it is not just this immediate area that’s seeing extreme warmth; witness moving the start of the historic Iditarod race to Fairbanks in search of reasonable snow and cold. Last week Fairbanks was warmer than places in Georgia! A few weeks back I saw reports of freezing rain in Deadhorse; my God, that’s on the North Slope up against the Beaufort Sea!!
Most folks in the Lower 48 don’t really understand our situation; we really are hurting when we cannot get snow and this is exacerbated by above freezing temps. We have a comparatively deep frost line and when we do not get snow in November and most of December but do see seasonable temps this can push that line even deeper. Then, when we see this absurd warmth coupled with a lack of snow fall, the terrain experiences a lot of melting of what snow and ice exist. However, because the ground is still frozen solid and is so quite a ways down the accumulated snow and ice doesn’t just melt off and disappear. Rather, it remains in place and slowly converts to just ice. When we get drizzle and showers or even the dreaded freezing rain the precipitation that falls doesn’t freeze atop this ice; instead it forms a thin layer of liquid water. I, for one, know of little else that is more slippery than a thin layer of water atop smooth ice. Salt is not used on roads in Alaska with the exception of around the Anchorage bowl; gravel is the main treatment but it just turns to mud and eventually runs off the ice in these circumstances. The paved roads can be repeatedly scraped by the plows and they are usually in good shape. But the back roads are sheets of ice, as are most parking lots, which become impossible to walk upon because they are so slick. Just five or six inches of snow atop these conditions would remedy the slippery nature but we just cannot seem to even buy such a minimal snow fall.
So when we Alaskans complain of a lack of snow and cold it is not just out of aesthetic concerns; it can be a matter of our very health. I heard last May that the Sunshine Clinic in Talkeetna had treated a record number of broken ankles, legs and feet due to these kinds of conditions. Assuming this was true we could well see another record this ‘winter’. Without question I will be purchasing a pair of the sandals that have studs driven into the soles before next winter; at least they will give some purchase on the skating rinks we call back roads and parking lots. But mostly I, and a whole state full of people, would just like to see our ‘normal’ winters return!!