Frost In Lieu Of Snow?

As this late fall season marches inexorably towards the Winter Solstice I’ve already remarked about the dearth of snow. October was around 30% of normal precipitation and thus far in November we’ve seen just 0.15” of precipitation and most of that was rain. The normal November precipitation in Talkeetna is 1.63” and I’d wager that’s the water equivalent from mostly snow fall. Even across the past ten days our air temp has flirted with the freezing mark and actually hit 39.1 F on November 12th! This by itself is most unusual but I also noticed that the Florence, Kentucky area where a very good friend of mine lives with his wonderful family is expected to get three to five inches of snow across today. Florence is just a bit south of Cincinnati which does mean it is a ways south yet they will soon see three to five inches more snow than Talkeetna, Alaska has experienced this winter..?!? That is absurd!

One rather unusual condition I’ve seen during this period is the formation of heavy frost which, if the air temp remains below freezing, does not melt across the day and accumulates much like snow under these conditions. Living in Michigan I was no stranger to frost but it always melted off during the day so seeing frost not just remain but accumulate across a number of days is a bit unusual. It is easy to understand how this occurs given the outdoor humidity remains at 90% plus across most of the day so if the air temp remains below freezing the moisture in the air is going to freeze upon objects like trees, houses, brush and similar. This very high and prolonged humidity is a function of living within a large boreal forest; this cuts air flow down to almost nothing and the rather damp nature of the forest contributes to the airborne moisture. Indeed, in living up here for fifteen months now the maximum wind gust my anemometer has recorded was 18 mph. It is approximately 25 feet off the ground but still well surrounded by the taller birch and spruce trees. One would need to put it somewhere between 35 and 50 feet to really get an accurate reading. It is not uncommon to see the tops of the trees really swaying in the wind while at ground level there’s just the slightest of breezes.

This was taken from the second floor master bedroom and the white is frost, not snow.  The flimsy orange barricade actually does keep the dogs within the back yard

This was taken from the second floor master bedroom and the white is frost, not snow. The flimsy orange barricade actually does keep the dogs within the back yard

The frost is capable of creating some interesting and often beautiful formations especially when struck by the sun. I’ve seen a field of diamonds which was really just the local muskeg being illuminated by direct sunlight which found its way through the trees. When using magnification the incredible complexity of the frost crystals can be mesmerizing. But I must admit as interesting and gorgeous as the situation can be it’s a far cry from a foot of fresh white snow! Here’s hoping we eventually see winter arrive and with it the much missed snow…

A single screw can grow a lot of frost over time!

A single screw can grow a lot of frost over time!

Blue plastic string can grow frost quite nicely!

Blue plastic string can grow frost quite nicely!

To Every Season…

I awoke this morning to the sound of rain against the metal roof and my German Shepherd Dog’s (Qanuk) slight but definite urgings that even though it was just 05:43 it was time to get up.  Qanuk doesn’t have my Alaskan Malamute’s (Anana) manners; she has always shied away from any interaction with me in the morning until I am awake.  Not sure why this is, I only know it to be true.  Qanuk lies next to me and very softly ‘talks’ to me with a series of grunts, groans and whines; if I in any way acknowledge his amazing repertoire of vocalizations he immediately increases both the volume and the repetition of his noises.  He knows if he does this long enough he will eventually make such an absurd noise that I will bust out laughing and then I have to arise.  I’ve encouraged both my canine companions to be vocal with me and while this is a dual edged sword I do enjoy ‘talking’ with them.

Anyway, as I stretched out my legs prior to arising it occurred to me I hadn’t heard that rhythmic ‘tap tap’ of rain against the roof since last fall.  I warned Qanuk as I arose that he wasn’t going to like the morning weather as it was raining; of late I’ve been taking both dogs out for an early morning walk to start accumulating my current target of 8,000 daily steps (working on making 10,000 daily steps) and to allow them to stretch their legs and work those ole noses.  However, given the 40 F air temp and sheeting rain this would not be one of those mornings.  Still and all it was soothing to again hear the rain and see it peppering the white and black pines and birch trees outside my kitchen window as I prepared my morning coffee.  I began to reflect upon my first ten months in Alaska from an environmental perspective and then compared this to what I’ve experienced while living in the lower 48.  No surprise in many ways its quite different and true to ‘Alaskan reality’ most of it is exaggerated over what I experienced in SE Michigan and other Midwest locations I’ve called ‘home’.

Fall is the season with which I have the most Alaskan experience as I not only experienced a full season last year but in my previous trips from 1996 through 2005 I almost always visited in September.  Last fall was rather aberrant in terms of precipitation with September seeing 192% of normal rainfall and October a whooping 291% of normal; in addition both months were well above normal in terms of temperature.  The beauty of fall in the lower 48 is based largely upon hardwood trees and there just are not many of these in south central Alaska so our fall colors are mainly yellow and gold.  In addition the time the first leaves began to change color until winds blew the last of them from the birches was just a bit more than two weeks.  And this occurred by early October which is far earlier than I experienced in the lower 48.  November started out warm but finally succumbed to the Arctic air and our first measurable snowfall was a 13″ dump across November 9th and 10th.  This was a bit earlier than I was used to seeing in SE Michigan.

Our winter was truly anomalous and in a huge way.  November was actually a bit cooler than usual with December seeing a bit above normal temps until the end when it started into an extremely warm cycle which extended across almost all of January.  In fact, January 2014 set records all over the state for warmth and was the warmest on record for this area.  Our precipitation all but vanished which was a good thing because when it did occur it was often nasty freezing rain.  February saw more seasonable temps occur but the snow did not return; we ended our winter precipitation with just 33% of normal snow pack by early April.  While much of the lower 48 set records for a harsh winter Alaska set records for warmth and lack of snowfall.

Spring arrived early and with it break up occurred much earlier than normal.  I was house hunting up here from April 7th through April 13th in 2013 and waded 30+ inches of snow pack and saw day time highs well below freezing and overnight lows often into the minus single digits and even a couple of minus double-digit mornings.  Yet by April 1st this year we had only a foot of mostly ice remaining on the ground and it vanished by the end of the month.  The locals tell me this was at least a month early but then the air temps in April continued the well above normal routine.  With the dramatic increase in sunshine its easy to see why the spring seemed to just explode upon the landscape; we had a muddy period common to break up but it only lasted for maybe 10 to 12 days and from what I was told that’s about half the usual time.  By early May the snow and ice were history and the mosquitoes out in force; of course they were biting while there was still a foot of snow/ice on the ground so this wasn’t a surprise.  Around the second week in May the birch trees suddenly exploded into life by shedding incredible amounts of yellow/green pollen followed by leaves; within a week all the trees were sporting leaves and within another week they were fully dressed down in summer plumage.

And so it is I find myself wondering what the summer will bring.  Granted I did experience almost all of August up here last year but it was largely showery and warm.  There’s no doubt the mosquitoes will be nasty but I have discovered ‘Deep Woods Off’ which functions amazingly well in this mosquito saturated environment.  After applying it to any exposed skin I’m actually able to spend hours outside and suffer only a few bites even as I’m working and sweating.  As stated I use this on any exposed skin and rub dryer sheets on my external clothing and I’m good to go.  This is a miracle as I’m a true ‘mosquito magnet’!!  I’m dealing with the current dearth of darkness as best I can; it never gets dark any longer and as of today the sun rose at 04:25 AKDT and will set at 23:33 AKDT yielding 19 hours, 8 minutes and 7 seconds of direct light.  And we’re still three weeks from the Summer Solstice!  I knew from previous experience the extended light would be more of a challenge for me than the darkness of winter and that’s been borne out thus far.  In true Alaskan style I’m learning to adapt to the extremes although I still prefer the extended darkness to a total lack of night.  I’m not exaggerating the latter; I was up at 02:20 this morning and outside it was light enough to clearly see the trees, their foliage and even ground features – I believe this is termed ‘nautical twilight’.  And this was with a solid overcast as well.

Local wildlife have their own rhythms within the seasonal cycles; the moose are largely ubiquitous although they do disappear from early April through early May when I believe they are birthing their spring calves back in the boreal forest.  The bears are around from middle to late April through early November.  The foxes (mainly Red) seem to be year round as is the single Wolverine that apparently calls this area ‘home’.  There is a shift in avian population with the waterfowl, robins and similar disappearing in October and returning in early May.  The Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers and Red Breasted Nuthatches seem to winter over as do the huge ravens which can almost rival the Bald Eagles in size.  I didn’t see the large Magpies during winter but they are once again in attendance now that its warmer so they may migrate as well.  There just are not a lot of Red Squirrels in this area but I know they remain across winter.

I’m only now (May 31st) beginning to see a few flowers in the boreal forest, most are small and tend towards white although I’ve seen various shades of red and some purples as well.  I know there are many blossoms to come and I suspect this will occur within a week or two.  Without question as spring arrived Nature seemed to go into overdrive regarding life; it literally is an explosion unlike anything I’ve previously witnessed.  Given the abbreviated growing season I guess it’s no surprise that once spring arrives its in a hurry to get down to business.  I’m now coming up on having spent all four seasons in my new home and without question I remain fascinated by and enamored of this magnificent land.  Living up here truly is a ‘give and take’ situation as learning to deal with the mosquitoes and tourists of summer as well as the rain of the late summer/early fall and the mud of break up can be a challenge but then overall its just part of amazing Alaska.  I feel so privileged I can finally live within its mystery and majesty; doing so has really nourished my soul as well as brought me into a much closer relationship with Nature and I couldn’t ask for more.  As such its a true pleasure just to experience Alaska’s many moods and learn to live within her extreme conditions.  Let the adventure continue…!!

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A gorgeous purple-red bloom just off East Barge Drive in the boreal forest

Gorgeous purple flowers along East Barge Drive

Gorgeous purple flowers along East Barge Drive

Break Up Begins…

In conversations with my realtor and good friend Holly she’s often stated that break up is her least favorite time in Alaska; in talking with other Alaskans I’ve heard this same lament.  In my ignorance I wrote a while back I couldn’t see how it could be any worse than last September and October when we saw 191% and 292% of normal rainfall for those months.  Hah, once again Alaska has shown me I’d best just keep my mouth shut and my eyes and mind open at least for the first few years I’m up here because I’m discovering why break up is not such a great thing to endure.  While its great to see the sun climbing higher and higher in the sky and the temps slowly warming as the ice and snow begin to give way they leave behind a real mess as evidenced by this image taken at the intersection of the Spur and East Barge Drive maybe 0.4 miles from my home.

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The remaining snow is really more rotting ice than snow and its often very slippery.  The ruts in the above image are six to ten inches deep; while my Escape is hardly a true off-road vehicle it does have a relatively high ground clearance and I bottomed out driving through this mess earlier today.  The remaining ‘ice pack’ is heavy with water and truly tests the waterproofing of hiking boots.  My trusty pair of mid-weight hiking boots went through the winter snows keeping my feet warm and dry but just 30 minutes of slogging through this mush and I could feel the beginnings of water seepage on my socks.  I do have a pair of ‘break up boots’ which are really just knee-high rubber wading boots; I can see where these will be coming in very handy across the next few weeks.

More and more areas of bare ground are appearing especially during sunny days; the sun is already strong enough that it can melt the snow and ice even if the air temperature remains a bit below the freezing mark.  Of late the temps have been dropping into the single digits by early morning but rising into the upper thirties to middle forties by late afternoon.  This morning we’re seeing a bit of snow but as of 08:38 AKDT the temp is 31.1 F on its way to 40 F so whatever small accumulation of snow we get will melt especially if the current light snow turns to rain.  The cooler overnight temps re-freeze the melted snow and ice and this makes morning walks a bit slippery; this morning it was downright treacherous as there’s maybe 0.4″ of fluffy snow covering the roads and the ice.  Of late I’ve taken to carrying one of my snow shoeing poles with me on every walk simply because a tripod is more stable than a bi-pod.  The dogs just love to get out and run regardless of the conditions although the slippery surfaces have caused a few hilarious ‘crash and burn’ events especially when they are playing while running.  I can see that until the snow and ice completely melt the footing will remain questionable and one must often devote more attention to the ground and its condition than is normally true while walking.  The birds are beginning to re-appear with the most notable being Trumpeter Swans again populating the marshy lake area just outside Talkeetna.  The moose were very common across the last week in March and for the first few days in April but now have completely disappeared.  I suspect the cows may have returned to the forest to birth their spring calves; if this if correct than the grizzlies should soon be emerging from their hibernation as they are in sync with the birth of the moose calves.  This allows them the opportunity to get a solid meal of protein which they need after hibernating all winter.  In addition many of the sows will have their own spring cubs and that’s always a bit of a concern as grizzly sows are very protective.  Once bear signs have been confirmed I’ll be carrying my ‘Counter Assault’ pepper spray for a month or more when walking the dogs.  While it’s a rather uncommon treat to see a grizzly in the wild around Talkeetna it’s hardly a rare occurrence and if one is observant there are grizzly signs all around this area in season.  The reappearance of these apex predators just means that all us locals have to once again be ‘bear aware’ and ensure that any sloppy habits from the winter like putting garbage outdoors are corrected.  I do enjoy living so close to so many large mammals and that’s part of this area’s charm; we humans are really the trespassers into the kingdom of the grizzly and moose and hence we should learn to co-exist with these magnificent animals.

The dogs enjoy the beginnings of break up during a walk along East Barge Drive

The dogs enjoy the beginnings of break up during a walk along East Barge Drive

Silence Broken..!!

One of the facets of living in this rural area that I most enjoy is the ‘immense silence’; I can go days and never hear any man-made sounds other than those I make.  I’ve become very much used to this wonderful quiet so imagine my surprise when it was broken last week by huge and extremely loud ‘thumps’ many of which actually shook the entire house!  At first I was clueless but then a quick look outside at the base of the house revealed the source; with the extraordinary warmth all this month the two feet plus of snow on the roof, now decreased to less than 18″ through melting and far too much rain and freezing rain, was finally beginning to break apart and drop to the ground.  Given the composition of these pieces – easily 50% ice – and the random sizing – between just a foot square out to many feet square – it’s not a surprise the larger pieces could produce such dramatic results.  Late last week I had to straighten a number of wall hanging pictures which had been knocked askew by vibrations from the huge thumps created by the falling snow/ice chunks.  Poor Qanuk was driven to distraction by the really large pieces falling; he either cowered in his crate or ran to me for reassurance!

Even though the roofs up here have a very steep pitch and are made of metal to expedite the removal of the snow loading this had not happened until now.  Add to this fact the collected snow was saturated first by freezing rain and later by just plain rain the resultant mixture was extremely heavy.  As the following image show the pieces can be quite large although this image is of a piece getting ready to drop from the front porch roof and as such generated no real noise or vibration because the distance it fell was so short.  However, imagine chunks this size or larger falling from the second story roof and you get some idea of the nature of these situations.  This is yet another key learning involving living up here and one that is most valued.  A buddy and I will be putting up an enclosure this fall to allow me to get my Ford Escape out of the elements.  Aligning it with any portion of the house which produces such snow and ice chunks would be disastrous; thankfully now i know what to look for and we will site said enclosure to be clear of the falling winter borne debris.  Just another interesting piece of rural Alaskan living…

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Maybe I Should Start A Column…

…addressing the absolutely strange weather of late across my new home state.  Heaven knows I wouldn’t run out of topics or observations about which to write.  This morning is no different and I could just as easily entitled this creation ‘It Just Won’t Snow!”.  For just the sixth time in October (that’s 6 out of 22 days of just 27.3%) we dropped below the freezing mark right at 07:00.  Fine, its been fairly warm of late so no big surprise.  However, by the time the precipitation started around 08:25 AKDT the outdoor temp had dropped to 31 F; given this one would expect to see snow yet what alerted me to the precipitation – its still far too dark outside to see anything – was the ‘tap, tap, tapping’ sound the rain makes on the metal roof.  I couldn’t believe I was hearing rain with a 31 F air temp so I opened the office window and, yes indeed, it was raining!

Now I’ve seen many instances in which it will snow when the air temp is in the middle to even upper thirties; usually this is caused by colder air aloft.  But to the best of my knowledge this is the first time I’d seen rain with a temp below freezing.  I had to further prove this to myself by walking onto the front porch with a powerful flashlight and illuminating the rack on my Escape Limited; without question ice-sickles were forming as the rain hit the colder metal, slowed in its advance down the existing ice and then froze.  I would assume this will produce freezing rain which is something most of the locals have said just doesn’t happen around here.  Given what I know of Alaskan weather – very, very little – I would surmise that we experienced a ‘pocket’ of colder air which drifted south.  The overall atmosphere is too warm to produce snow but when the rain falls into this cold pocket it will freeze upon exposed surfaces.  Breaks in the clouds are now letting enough light filter through such that I can see the immediate area and the Escape does indeed have a light sheen to it suggesting ice.  I also see the air temp has risen now to 32.2 F so said ice will quickly return to a liquid state.  My temperature sensor is placed 4 feet above ground level; this is really a bit high – it should be more like 18″ to 24″ – but because a 36″ snow pack isn’t uncommon by January I had little choice but to set it up higher.

Without question the weather up here has been ‘anomalous’ at best and downright strange at worst but then Alaska is certainly not known for a docile, stable climate.  In fact, its this extreme nature which helped interest me in the state way back in the middle 90’s.  Thus far I not been disappointed in terms of unusual weather; just with the way the weather has been unusual.  I suppose if I favored warmer temps I would be happy but then if this were my situation I sure as Hell wouldn’t have retired to ‘The Last Frontier’ in the first place.  Here’s hoping we do see some snow and soon..!