Nature’s Dance of Light & Sound

Boiling Clouds Before Storm2 - Fix

Boiling cloud line before a thunderstorm in West Chester, Ohio

As those of you who follow this blog are well aware I am fascinated with weather and gravitate towards the extremes in particular.  Growing up in the Midwest I saw all kinds of extreme meteorological conditions from ice storms to heat waves, blizzards to cold snaps and tornadoes to severe thunderstorms.  Without question one of my favorite kinds of intense weather involves the aforementioned severe thunderstorms.  There is something just so energizing and exciting about powerful storms capable of dropping hail and heavy rain as well as lighting the sky with intense lightning followed by explosive thunder!  While living in SE Michigan I became a trained weather spotter for the NWS (National Weather Service) and functioned in that capacity while living in the Cincinnati area as well.  I knew when I relocated to south central Alaska I was would see far fewer thunderstorms and those I did experience would be much less intense.  We just do not have the necessary long term heating along with sharply defined cold fronts or ‘dry lines’ traveling at high speeds and able to crash into hot, humid air masses.  We do get some uplift based on the geography – mainly the many mountain ranges – but these storms rarely reach moderate levels let alone severe.  In general our thunderstorms are mainly what some call ‘air mass’ storms which are of mild to moderate intensity, generally form against mountain ranges in the afternoons and quickly fall apart once they push off the front ranges.

I never expected I would so miss strong to severe thunderstorms nor did I realize just how much a part of my daily spring to summer existence was defined by the flash of lightning and consequent rumble of thunder.  But as I reflect upon the lack of thunderstorms in south-central Alaska I also remember I was not always so fond of these events.  In fact, when quite a bit younger, I was actually terrified of that ‘flash-crash’ sequence so much I couldn’t sleep when thunderstorms were active.  To this day I do not why I was so terrified; I’d never had a bad experience with said storms nor did I know anyone who had endured anything negative from such storms with the possible exception of a flooded basement.  But there was no denying my fear.  It became so bad my father finally decided to intervene; he began to take me out on our back porch when thunderstorms were rolling in and explain to me what they were, how they worked and how to count the seconds from a lightning flash to the resultant thunder as a means of determining a rough range to the lightning (by counting the number of seconds from the flash to the thunder and then dividing by ‘five’ to get the miles away).  Thanks to his patience my ungrounded fear slowly bled away and I came to truly love strong thunderstorms.

In fact, my love of strong thunderstorms grew to the point I often would wander outside during such storms just to experience their power and awe ‘up close and personal’.  In general this wasn’t really dangerous, although by today’s wimpy standards such behavior would be defined as ‘extremely dangerous’, but a few times I was most definitely ‘in harm’s way’.  More than once I’ve smelled ozone after a very close lightning strike; one must be almost ‘danger close’ to be able to perceive this odor.  And one time I actually ‘felt’ the remnants of a very strong,  close by strike.  Given the rain such storms generate I was almost always walking bare foot and this time was no different.  I remember the ‘flash-boom’ sequence being almost instantaneous meaning a very close lightning stroke; it was followed by a mild electric shock at my feet.  In hindsight I was far too close to said strike but luckily for me all I received was a warning shock..!  None of these experiences dampened my enthusiasm for powerful thunderstorms and I still possess said enthusiasm.

Back in May I was awakened around 04:00 by a loud blast; in a nod towards both how few thunderstorms I’ve seen since moving up here and how much I’m becoming an Alaskan upon being awakened I first thought it was an earthquake.  But then I heard more thunder off to the WSW and I knew it had been a healthy stroke of lightning from a thunderstorm.  Both my canine companions, Anana and Qanuk, appeared at the edge of my bed obviously concerned regarding the sudden, loud noise so early in the morning.  I sat up and took a few minutes to assure them everything was fine and it had just been thunder.  Then I saw another flash and immediately arose, put on some clothing, went downstairs and out onto the back porch to watch the show.  I was only outside for maybe a minute before I came back indoors and liberally applied a coating of ‘Deep Woods Off’ before returning to the back porch with my canine companions.  Although both remained a bit skittish regarding the thunder we had a great time.  During this it occurred to me I was passing on my father’s wisdom in soothing the dogs and assuring them there was nothing to fear.

Funny how someone could be so terrified of a natural phenomenon, learn to understand and then appreciate it, come to truly revel in its existence and then end up moving away from it and sorely miss its presence.  Life is all about choices and their consequences; I knew when I decided to relocate to Alaska I was basically giving up the opportunity to experience severe thunderstorms.  I had hoped maybe extreme winter weather might make up for the absence of said storms.  While I truly miss strong to severe thunderstorms I also truly love my ‘new’ home so this is one time I’m still ‘okay’ with the consequences of my decision.  But I’d be lying if I do not admit to eagerly watching as clouds darken the sky, hoping maybe I’ll once again see that flash and hear the resultant thunder…

Air Mass Tunderstorm Building

Severe thunderstorm over Cincinnati as viewed from a northern suburb (West Chester, OH)

Wood Stove Installation Adventures…

What has become a regular occurrence – if two years can produce a ‘regular’ anything – my college friend Sarge flew into Anchorage the last day of September to spend 17 days. He was a regular partner on my many trips to ‘The Great Land’ from 1996 through 2005 and drove the 26’ U-Haul van from SE Michigan to Talkeetna when I relocated in August of 2013. As such he has seen most of what I’ve seen in this majestic state so his visits since I moved up here have centered upon project work. Each year I assemble a list of projects which either require another’s assistance or are beyond my skill set; as Sarge is extremely handy when it comes to so many things he can usually handle my requests. Being a self-employed design engineer he is well suited to taking my requests and developing a ‘fix’ as well as implementing said ‘fix’. Thus when I began making noise about wanting a wood stove in my humble abode he figured it wouldn’t be too major an undertaking.

In a perfect world such a project would most likely be a fairly straightforward proposal but as we all know this is anything but a perfect world and many aspects of this plan were under-rated simply out of ‘regional ignorance’. I had already picked out a compact wood burning stove at Moores’; the unit was ready such that the day after his arrival we drove to the store and picked up the stove. Initially things went well as we utilized the invaluable assistance of Shane at Moores’ along with Sarge’s skills to get the stove positioned and to get the hearth pieces cut and placed after which we did a more precise positioning of the stove. Then we went after the ancillary parts to pipe the exhaust from the stove through the exterior wall to the outside and run the piping to the second story roof. It was at this point things began to get ‘tense’.

Interior Stove Install Almost Complete!

Interior Stove Install Almost Complete!

I budgeted this effort at around $1400. Hah; I quickly learned I was virtually clueless regarding the requirements of installing a wood stove in Alaska. Because of the potential for cold temps the piping not just inside but all the way to the cap just above the second story roof line needed to be insulated double walled piping. Ouch, the price differential between just single wall piping and double wall insulated is huge! This blew my pricing guess-timates right out of the water as while six inch diameter single wall piping is maybe $30/3 feet the double wall insulated variety runs around $90/3 foot section. Then I discovered the costs of all the additional pieces like the thimble, exterior support and the ‘T’ were far more than I had anticipated. Within a matter of days I saw this project pushing $2,000 and then Murphy decided to lend his five cents.

We had hoped to buy a kit for all this ancillary stuff at Moores’; sadly they were out of stock and didn’t even have all the parts required in stock. We went on-line and found cheaper alternatives at Lowe’s but when we checked they showed out of stock at the Wasilla location and both Anchorage stores. We finally found a good deal through and placed the order on Sunday, October 4th. All week I monitored the order but there were no updates. In addition I sent two emails to the third party vendor inquiring as to shipping methods. As of Monday, October 12th sent me an email informing me they couldn’t verify anything about the order. I uttered a few choice words, emailed, canceled the order and sent in a blistering review regarding the customer service of the third party vendor.

Sarge and I then visited Moores’ and picked up most of the parts in the kit; the operand word here is ‘most’. They were short two critical pieces and wouldn’t have them until Friday at the earliest. This was far too late so we purchased the items they had, beat feet home and went on-line. Mr. Murphy must have been chortling because only the Lowe’s on the south side of Anchorage had what we needed! We loaded up and left around 11:30 in thick freezing fog which thankfully dispersed just north of Willow as the air temp climbed to 40°F. The long trip was uneventful and we found the Lowe’s and then discovered they had the complete kit at a substantial savings over purchasing the separate parts. We purchased the kit and the other part we needed, jumped in the Escape, stopped at Fred Meyer and Costco and eventually pulled into the driveway at 17:55. A long day but we were feeling good given we had all the parts.

Tuesday rolled around and so did the rain; initially just drizzle but strengthening to showers by daylight. Given most of the remaining work involved putting up the exhaust pipe from maybe five feet above the first floor all the way to just above the second story roof and a cut into said metal roof was required to allow the exhaust ‘stack’ to remain close to the exterior wall and thus supported we spent most of Tuesday awaiting a decrease in the rain. I took time off to fill in at KTNA for the noon newscast; when I returned Sarge had installed the exterior ‘T’, the stack support and one length of double wall insulated pipe as well. Only the increasing rain had stopped him from continuing on the exterior work. But the weather refused to cooperate and we had to be content working other projects indoors for the remainder of the day.

Exterior Assembly Underway!

Exterior Assembly Underway!

Wednesday dawned mostly clear but some definite rain had occurred around 05:30 and everything was wet. As we awaited daylight the skies began to cloud up and weather radar showed showers moving in. I checked the NWS forecast and determined we’d be seeing rain by 11:00 which would probably last into the mid-afternoon. But the same forecast called for clearing overnight with continued clearing into Thursday morning yielding mostly sunny conditions with a high around 50°F. Given this we agreed to continue the outdoor work while it remained dry and managed to get three 36” lengths of the exhaust pipe mated, stabilized and sealed. This left us just two more pieces along with the cap but also still needing to cut the hole in the roof. We decided to switch off and finish some remaining projects while we awaited the forecast better conditions on Thursday. I was more than a bit concerned about doing so as I know how wrong weather forecasts can be up here but I also felt the safety factor was paramount and no one wants to work at the end of a 20’ ladder in rain while sporting an electrically driven ‘Saws-All’.

Thursday dawned partly cloudy and continued to improve with the sunshine slowly warming the air but also encouraging a light breeze. Not to be put off we visited Moores’ around noon and rented a 24’ fiberglass ladder which we hauled back to my place and set up. It took Sarge two and a half hours to extend the exhaust pipe, cut a clean hole through the wood and metal roof, add the final piece of exhaust pipe, place the stabilizing ‘apron’ over the pipe and add the cap. Then it was time to return the ladder and finish up some final sealing and cosmetic work in the house. By this point we were tired and agreed to wait until Friday morning to install the fire bricks inside the stove and test the whole thing.

Sarge working on slightly enlarging the hole through the roof

Sarge working on slightly enlarging the hole through the roof

Friday was damp and drizzling so we definitely guessed right regarding the day to do the exterior work! The jigsaw puzzle that was installing the fire brick required a bit of thought but we soon had it ready to go. I assembled a small fire and attempted to draft the unit. Because it has ‘heat-a-lator’ piping in place there is no single large opening to the exhaust piping; this made trying to draft the set up difficult. I thought I had it and lit the fire; within a minute the main floor was awash in smoke! Thankfully I found my heat gun, cranked it up to ‘high’ and started heating the top interior of the stove. Within four or five minutes I had an upward flowing draft and could re-light the fire which this time drafted properly. It was a fitting end to see smoke slowly curling out of the chimney above the second floor roof line!

The finished product ready for use!

The finished product ready for use!

So now I have something I’ve wanted since I first moved in; a full functional wood stove! This will cut down on fuel oil costs and also draw out the place in winter; in addition I will have reliable back up heating system should the power fail and the generator run out of gas. My next chore is to locate a local source of seasoned firewood and get it delivered…

And The Learnings Fell Like Snowflakes…

After whining about the lack of any real Alaskan winter weather most of last winter and all of this one I finally have seen some true south central Alaskan snowfall and will be seeing some downright cold air temps across the next few days. Jeez but it seems like it took forever but then the mild and dry trend that has been a part of all the winter time I’ve put in up here only seemed to break late last Thursday with the unexpected snow event which finally left behind 17.5” of snow in this immediate area. This gave us a total snow/ice pack of 23.5″.  And it was classic Talkeetna snow in being very fluffy and low density; my calculated SWE (snow water equivalent) was 15.54” of snow to produce 1” of liquid water. Anyone familiar with snow densities will recognize this is indeed lightweight snow.

The event started around sunset on Thursday (01/22) and lasted through Saturday (01/24) late afternoon with the bulk of the snow falling between 00:00 Friday morning and 22:00 Friday evening. As is typical for this immediate area but still something of an unusual situation from my experience – all in the lower 48 – there was no wind and the snow fell vertically and hence piled up on any nearly horizontal surface. This gives the trees that appearance of being bathed in marshmallow cream and is truly beautiful in sunlight and especially so in moonlight. It also kills sound transmission and helps maintain the ‘immense silence’ common after such snow falls.

By the time I needed to get out and drive to KTNA for my Friday evening newscast there were 13.5” of snow on the ground. Thankfully the grader had been down East Barge Drive twice by 17:00 so it was very passable; I was to learn East Barge was in better shape than the Spur! I was able to finesse my Ford Escape through the accumulated snow and out to the cleared side road. From there it was an easy trip to KTNA. However, when I returned all Hell broke loose and the ‘learnings’ I alluded to in the title of this piece started falling on me like the snow. Of course it was pitch black and snowing heavily so I couldn’t see Roland hadn’t been around with his front end loader to clear my driveway but I could see a fair wall of snow at the junction of my driveway and East Barge pushed there by the grader. I threw caution to the wind, accelerated and managed to get the Escape maybe three feet off East Barge Drive before I was stopped. I worked for 20 minutes trying every trick I knew but finally gave up and waded the snow to the house leaving the Escape trapped.

Come Saturday morning around 09:45 when daylight returned I dressed for the conditions and headed out to work on freeing the car. I spent almost 90 minutes without success; my worst fears were realized when I saw in trying to rock the vehicle I had allowed the tires to burn through the fluffy snow down to the layer of ice that’s been on all the side roads – and driveways – since the rain/freezing rain of January 14th and 15th. Once this happened the tires just spun and created even deeper icy ruts. I tried putting wooden pieces at the tire/ice interfaces and goosing the accelerator but this only provided the briefest traction before the wood was pushed by the tires along the ice and shot out. I was hoping to be able to free the Escape by backing into East Barge Drive and then parking it and awaiting Roland. I finally gave up and decided to await Roland’s visit hoping maybe he could push or pull me free.

HAH; the best laid plans!! Roland finally showed up at 02:15 this – Sunday – morning (only in Alaska do you get you driveway plowed at 02:00!!) and cleared my driveway!! I heard him working on some of the neighbor’s driveways around 01:30. I was tired and sore and didn’t want to try to get up, get dressed, run out there and see if he could help me so I just rolled over and went back to sleep. After discussing my options this morning with my buddy Sarge I went back out at 10:00 and started working on freeing the Escape. Roland had cleared all the snow around the Escape down to the ice; I know he was trying to help me but this was not good as I couldn’t get any traction. After 30 minutes I was finally able to wedge two large pieces of particle board under the two front wheels and by leaving the driver’s door open and keeping my left foot on the ground while I goosed the accelerator with my right foot and pushed against the door jamb with my left arm I was slowly able to ‘walk’ the Escape in a lateral motion to the left. After five tries I was able to finally get enough purchase for the tires to bite and then I could get the Escape up the driveway and into the ‘garage’. That was way more fun then I wanted at 10:30 in the -8 F air!! The really frustrating thing was this whole sad affair was based on the lousy weather earlier in January; if the temp had been even close to normal we’d never have seen the rain and freezing rain and hence there wouldn’t have been the layer of granite hard ice on all the back roads and driveways. Then, I’d have just burned down through the snow, hit gravel and then found traction.

As I’ve mentioned in many earlier blogs I moved to Alaska in August of 2013 with no winter, spring or summer experience with the land and no previous experience living rural so I knew I had tons of learnings coming my way and I’ve not been disappointed. Based on just the last 68 hours here are some ‘key’ learnings I’ll not soon forget:

1. Low density fluffy snow is a cast iron bitch to drive on if there’s ice beneath it!
2. Break up boots (‘rubber waders’ for you lower 48’ers) are just 17” tall and mainly useless in 24” of fresh snow
3. Much better to leave one’s pant legs outside the boots; if tucked in snow will work its way into the boots and then you get wet feet.
4. Poly-pro glove liners are useless when working in snow; they quickly become sodden and then they transmit cold to the point it feels like you’re working with bare hands.
5. When you really chill fingers – not to the frost bite level but close – DO NOT try warm water to speed up the warming process!!! The pain is incredibly nasty. Instead tuck them under your armpits and slowly warm them; while this took me almost a full hour the pain I experienced during that time was nothing like the pain of just warm water on those abused fingers.
6. Modern vehicles (my Escape is a 2011 model) are useless in terms of ‘rocking’ to try to escape ruts in snow; they have so many interlocks on the engine rpm and the transmission you just cannot rock the vehicle at all. I also discovered my Escape has a damn interlock that prevents on from getting the transmission out of ‘Park’ without having a human’s weight on the front seat. Pushing down on the seat using my arm and hand with all my strength couldn’t break this interlock. Perhaps if one has a manual transmission one can bypass some of these issues; I would’ve killed to have a manual tranny in my Escape (I’ve had one in virtually every other vehicle I’ve owned..!) but there was no option for such a configuration.
7. Before next winter I’m going to at minimum have a box of kitty litter in the Escape along with 50 feet of steel cable and a hand operated winch! If I’d had such a set up I could’ve easily strung the cable across the road, tied it off to a tree and winched the Escape clear of the icy ruts. I’m also going to look into a front mounted electric unit but I know they are costly as in over a grand.
8. I will NEVER again be so cavalier regarding deep snow; better to let the Escape sit on the side of the road and even have the grader push some snow against it than try to push a bad situation and end up in my predicament.

Eight hard learned lessons to add to my list; at least if I can walk away from the past 72 hours with these understandings hopefully I’ll be better prepared for the remainder of this winter and future winters as well. The following are some imagery from this event; I need to get the extension cord run from the front porch to the ‘garage’ such that I can power the battery blanket and the oil heater as tonight I will likely see -25 F air temps and similar temps tomorrow night as well. But all told I’m not complaining; I finally had a chance to experience a ‘moderate’ snow event in rural south central Alaska!

Saturday morning view of the Escape stuck at the intersection of East Barge Drive and my driveway

Saturday morning view of the Escape stuck at the intersection of East Barge Drive and my driveway

The Escape is free and back in it's garage by 11:00 Sunday morning

The Escape is free and back in it’s garage by 11:00 Sunday morning

Sunday morning sunlight on the snow covered roof of my place

Sunday morning sunlight on the snow covered roof of my place

The south side of my place and the back yard buried in snow

The south side of my place and the back yard buried in snow

Even Anana was impressed with the 17" of snow she was wading early Saturday morning!

Even Anana was impressed with the 17″ of snow she was wading early Saturday morning!  The other object is the weather station sensor platform; it is a bit more than four feet off the ground.

Anana and Qanuk playing in the snow around 10:00 Friday morning

Anana and Qanuk playing in the snow around 10:00 Friday morning

At the risk of being repetitive…

…where in Heaven’s Name is winter?!?!?  I suppose I should be accurate and ask ‘where is winter in south central Alaska’ although a majority of the state has seen a fairly mild winter to this point.  Apparently northern reaches of the state are actually seeing more typical weather of late; my buddy in Livengood, Alaska (roughly 80 miles NW of Fairbanks) recently spoke of air temps in the negative numbers along with many inches of snow.  I see tomorrow’s high is just -1 F and NWS forecasting 3” to 6” of snow across Tuesday (12/02) night into Wednesday morning.  I’d gladly take such a forecast and be happy even though we should be seeing at least 18” of snow pack by this point.  We did get snow Saturday (11/29); it snowed continually albeit lightly for more than 15 hours yet in my measurements this morning I saw a meager 2.1” of new snow with a ‘snow pack’ of just 2.6” of snow.  I remain amazed I could see 15 contiguous hours of even light snow and still accumulate barely 2” of snow pack…

Here’s a snipped copy of my morning report to CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow):

113014 CoCoRaHS

This report looks much more like those I generated while living in SW Ohio or even SE Michigan when we were lucky to even see accumulating snow during many winters.  I’m beginning to believe I somehow redirect winter weather away from where ever I choose to live!  This sounds like nonsense but you must realize for the four winters I lived in SE Michigan (2009 through 2013) there was almost no snow; the final winter (2012-2013) we totaled just 9” of snow all winter and never saw a temp below 0 F.  I move out in July of 2013 and the next winter sets an all-time record for snowfall at Detroit’s Metro airport and also sets numerous low temperature records during the season.  Meanwhile, Talkeetna has its warmest winter on record as does most of Alaska.  And this year is looking much the same.

I delved back into my weather data collected by my Davis Vantage Pro 2 wireless weather station across the period from November 1, 2013 through February 28, 2014.  I’ve snipped out the monthly synopsis for each month; with the exception of November it’s easy to see it truly was extremely warm up here:





Unbelievable that Talkeetna’s average temp for January 2014 was 25.8 F and its low was just 0.6 F!!!  December and January are the two coldest months up here but you wouldn’t have known that from the above data.  And it appears we’re heading for another such ‘winter that wasn’t’ this year.

Part of the reason I moved to Alaska was to experience five plus months of real winter with feet of snow pack and days of temps never reaching 0 F and dropping into the minus twenties or even minus thirties.  At this juncture to say I’ve been disappointed would be a bit like calling Denali ‘a big hill’!  I realize that technically winter has yet to begin although meteorological winter does start December 1st and runs through March 1st so for all intent and purpose we are now in the winter season.

I certainly hope we see a true shift in our winter back to the more normal temps and snowfall for this area but to this point it doesn’t look good.  If this continues I may have to do the unthinkable and move to Fairbanks or points north just to see an Alaskan winter.  After the grueling move up here from SE Michigan I swore I would never move again yet if I cannot find ‘winter’ here I may just have to swallow that promise and look north.  Alaskans from the further north reaches joking refer to this area as ‘the banana belt’; sadly to this point that moniker is all too accurate!

The Sound of Thunder!!

Yet another milestone in my Alaskan adventure occurred this past Monday afternoon when the faint albeit unmistakable sound of distant thunder reverberated through the boreal forest.  This is the first time I’ve heard thunder in my new home and it was most welcome!  If there’s one thing I really miss from my time in the lower 48 its the seasonal presence of thunderstorms in general and severe thunderstorms in particular.  As a very young child I remember being terrified of both lightning and thunder; I actually dreaded the steamy hot July and August evenings in SE Michigan because such weather often brought on thunderstorms.  I’m forever grateful to my father for finally taking me out on the family home’s back porch as a thunderstorm approached and explaining just what was happening; we talked about the genesis of the storm, the lightning being the precursor to thunder and he taught me to estimate the distance to a storm by counting the seconds between a lightning flash and its resultant thunder.  I never again feared thunderstorms and, indeed, grew to absolutely love the phenomena to the point I regularly walked in such storms.  In hindsight probably not the wisest thing to do but I loved feeling the energy and power of the storm all around me.  One time I remember actually feeling a weak electrical shock from a close by strike; I never wear shoes when I walk in such storms as they just become saturated and dead weight.  And on a couple of occasions I’ve smelled ozone from a very close by strike; these events always included that incredible ‘flash-boom’ effect of a truly close lightning strike in which the flash and resultant boom are virtually simultaneous.

Anyway, the thunderstorms I’ve seen up here – mostly on radar or satellite – are pale comparisons to the gully washers of the SE or the incredible towering cumulonimbus of the plains storms but at least they are around.  Indeed, there is now little call for the weather spotter training I cultivated while living in the lower 48.  I still do participate in CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow reporting network) and I have sent in reports of extreme weather to the Anchorage NWS office during a winter storm but I do not expect to do as much in these areas as I did while living in the lower 48.  Yet there’s no shortage of fascinating meteorology up here and I’m in seventh heaven re-learning so much of what I took for granted as ‘immutable knowledge’ regarding the weather.  Weather in the higher latitudes is quite different from that found in the middle latitudes so this a fertile area for learning’s; it’s just a great coincidence that I’m fascinated by meteorology in general.

Another area of great interest to me, and one of which I know little but am working to improve, is that of geology and the physics of earthquakes.  Prior to relocating to Alaska I had minimal experience with earthquakes and found them to be curiosities which might occur every decade or so.  This changed a bit while I was employed with The Clorox Company as its headquarters is in Oakland with its technical center located just a bit further east in Pleasanton; as such I did experience more tremblors while visiting the west coast.  Even so noticeable shifts in the earth were still just a curiosity.  With my relocation to south central Alaska the frequency to which I would experience tremblors has changed dramatically as I’ve felt three very pronounced seismic events since moving up here and that’s been just 10 months.  This past Monday afternoon a magnitude 7.9 event occurred in the Aleutian Island chain which prompted a short-lived tsunami warning; no damage was reported.  While we did not feel anything up here the folks in Anchorage could feel just a bit of that event.  I knew prior to moving up here Alaska was the most seismically active of the fifty states but I had no idea just how active it is; if you’d like to get some perspective visit this website:  It’s run by UAF (University of Alaska Fairbanks) and is the clearinghouse for information on Alaskan seismic activity.  Indeed, a quick perusal of the current data shows 79 events recorded for Wednesday, June 25th as of 12:18 AKDT.  I’ve taken the liberty of pasting a copy of the activity map for June 25th at the end of this piece; it was copied as of 12:32 AKDT.  Granted, most are very small as in the magnitude 1 to 2 range but this still illustrates Alaska can truly be ‘seismically active’.  This is the only place I’ve heard sound associated with seismic activity; back in the winter a magnitude 5.9 event was accompanied by two very loud ‘booms’ which actually awakened my soundly sleeping Alaskan Malamute (Anana).

I guess I could say there’s rarely a dull moment in this amazing state I now call home and I like it this way.  We’re looking at the potential for some heavy rain across the next 12 to 18 hours; we need moisture so it is welcome although it will put a damper on riding my bicycle.  But in true Alaskan fashion I’ll just substitute an extended walk in the rain with the dogs; they don’t mind the rain although they won’t like having to remain in the mud room for a few hours after we return so they can dry off and I can take a couple of shots at removing a bit of that glacial silt and dirt that is ubiquitous to this area.  These kinds of adjustments are becoming almost routine and I like this realization as it means I am definitely becoming an Alaskan!

It’s About Time..!!

After the warmest January on record for the Talkeetna area and, indeed, for all of Alaska I was pleased to see the following NWS forecast for Talkeetna posted Saturday, February 8th at 05:00 AKST; it’s about time we saw such a forecast as its one we can live with:

  • Today Sunny, with a high near 6. East wind around 10 mph.
  • Tonight – Mostly clear, with a low around -3. East wind 15 to 25 mph.
  • Sunday – Sunny, with a high near -1. East wind 25 to 30 mph.
  • Sunday Night – Mostly clear, with a low around -5. Wind chill values as low as -35. East wind 35 to 40 mph.
  • Monday – Sunny, with a high near 5. East wind 20 to 25 mph decreasing to 15 to 20 mph in the afternoon.
  • Monday Night – Mostly clear, with a low around 0.
  • Tuesday – Sunny, with a high near 5.
  • Tuesday Night – Partly cloudy, with a low around -3.
  • Wednesday – Partly sunny, with a high near -3.
  • Wednesday Night – A chance of snow. Mostly cloudy, with a low around -5.
  • Thursday – A chance of snow. Mostly cloudy, with a high near -1.
  • Thursday Night – A chance of snow. Mostly cloudy, with a low around -1.
  • Friday – A chance of snow. Mostly cloudy, with a high near 1.

All I can say, and I know the locals would gladly echo my comments, is;  “Bring It On, Baby…Bring It On!!!!


What we ‘Talkeetna-ites’ hope to see…

Extreme Alaska!

Anyone reading my previous blogs is aware I am a ‘weather weenie’ in that all things meteorological fascinate me and I love to watch the skies and develop an ability to guess the near term weather based upon current conditions.  Having done this for many decades in the lower 48 I was actually pretty good at it; sure, as I moved to different areas I had to fine tune my ability but overall it’s served me well.  At least until I moved to Alaska; now I can add learning to predict upcoming weather by watching the skies and immediate weather data as yet another area I have much unlearning to do.  I’m okay with this concept because, after all, its dabbling in weather and I love that but it’s also fun to just stretch one’s self.  I have a feeling I’ll be getting both in spades across the upcoming years; yes, it takes years to really develop and refine this ability because so much is based upon experience.

The past eleven days has shown me just how extreme Alaska weather can be in terms of data; interestingly enough, the actual weather has not always reflected the extreme data.  On December 3rd at 03:20 AKST I recorded a barometric pressure of 1,042.872 Mb (30.796″ Hg); this is the highest barometric pressure I’ve ever experienced.  The accompanying weather conditions were classic for extremely high pressure; crystal clear azure skies, no wind and cold temps.  And now, just eleven days later on December 14th, I recorded a barometric pressure of 977.413 Mb (28.863″ Hg) at 00:10 which is the lowest I’ve yet experienced.  In this case what I would’ve expected in terms of weather conditions was completely wrong.  Given such low pressure one would normally expect howling winds and snow falling by the foot because the air temp was around 18 F.  However, while I did record NNE winds to 16 mph on the evening of the 13th by 01:00 AKST on Saturday, December 14th the winds were calm and have remained so.  We did pick up 3.1″ of snow overnight but that doesn’t even merit mention from NWS.  As an aside I noticed that Wayne County in SE Michigan is under a Winter Storm Warning and expected to see a total of 2 to 4 inches of snow; NWS serves all fifty states and uses common terminology in their products like forecasts, advisories and warnings yet said common terminology is obviously ‘tweaked’ by location.  Up here a snow event producing 5″ to 10″ of snow might get a Winter Weather Advisory while the same in SE Michigan would get at least that Winter Storm Warning and probably a Heavy Snow Warning as well.  Regardless, if such low pressure occurred anywhere in the lower 48 one would expect high winds and copious precipitation.

To put these pressure values in some perspective I’ve taken some pertinent information from the website.  “The accepted world record maximum “sea-level equivalent” pressure for stations below 750 meters was observed at Agata Lake (66 degrees 53 minutes N; 93 degrees 28 minutes E) in Siberia at 1200 GMT on 13 December 1968: that record is 1083.8 mb (32.00 inches) as noted on the site at The station elevation is 263 meters; the temperature was -46 degrees C. Extraordinarily high surface pressures observed nearby at the same time corroborated the record measurement.  Seven stations recorded pressures in excess of 1070 mb, indicating that the pressure at Agata was in keeping with the general situation over the area.”  Here’s what that same site says regarding the minimum barometric pressure:  “The lowest sea-level pressure ever recorded 870 millibars (or 25.69 inches of mercury) in the storm Typhoon Tip. It was recorded 300 miles west of the island of Guam in the Pacific Ocean at latitude 16 deg 44 min north, longitude 137 deg 46 min east, on Oct. 12, 1979.  A hurricane hunter plane flying through the Category 5 storm’s eye of Wilma, on October 19th of 2005 found a minimum central pressure of 882 millibars, this would be an all-time record for an Atlantic storm surpassing the record set in 1988 by Gilbert which was 888 millibars (Mb).  The purist in me demands I point out that water seems to enhance low pressure mainly because said pressures occur in hurricanes (or typhoons).  So what’s the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded over land?  “Here’s the lowest pressure ever recorded over land:  892 Mb (26.35 ” Hg); Craig’s Key, Florida, eye of the Labor Day Hurricane, 2 September 1935.”

Another way of getting perspective on the low pressures is to note that a ‘typical’ Category 2 hurricane would see pressures around 995 Mb while an ‘average’ Category 3 hurricane would see pressures around 960 Mb.  Given this the low pressure we’re now experiencing is in the realm of a Category 2 storm and that’s pretty impressive given its occurring over land and in winter with the cold temps.  I find it amazing that within less than two week’s time I’ve experienced both the highest pressure and the lowest pressure I’ve ever seen.  This really speaks to the extraordinary extremes that seem to be the foundation of Alaskan weather.  And I do love such impressive shifts in the local weather as it really does keep it interesting.  Just another reason I find ‘The Final Frontier’ such an amazing place in which to reside!

Bottomed Out Aneroid Barometer

Bottomed Out Aneroid Barometer; actual pressure was 28.84″ Hg

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..!


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

The Relativity of Weather Alerts & Volunteer Newscasting

Its been a very warm and wet late summer and fall in much of Alaska and Talkeetna has been no different.  We’re already a week into November and we still have no snow on the ground although across the past few days the temperatures have finally returned to a more normal range with a low yesterday (Friday, 11/08) morning if just 6.3 F and an afternoon high of 22.3 F.  Yesterday I saw an alert issued by NWS for a rain/snow event over the weekend; this morning they had fleshed out said alert with details and these surprised me a bit.  Although NWS just posted a ‘Winter Weather Advisory’ for the northern Susitna River Valley including Talkeetna I was shocked to see the forecast calling for anywhere from six to twelve inches of snow by Sunday afternoon!  In SE Michigan this kind of snow accumulation would’ve generated a ‘Winter Storm Warning’ and probably even a ‘Heavy Snow Warning’ as well.  Yet up here its just a ‘Winter Weather Advisory’.  In SE Michigan such an advisory would be given for snowfall in the range of two to four inches.  Without question I’ll be re-learning the relative severity of NWS issued weather statements across the next few years.

After fumbling my way through my inaugural KTNA newscast last Thursday at noon the program director decided I was ready for a regular posting and assigned me to do the local evening news on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 18:00 to 18:25 AKST.  I was a bit surprised as I didn’t think I’d done very well at all but then the only way to improve one’s presence and delivery is to practice so the poor locals around Talkeetna will just have to buck up while I work to get my sound and rhythm perfected and in place.  All the staff and volunteers I’ve spoken to have been very kind and supportive; without question its their personalities that really encouraged me to give this volunteering a shot.  Never having done anything like this previously it has been a bit of stretch and that’s okay because I’ve found that while I’m usually initially hesitant I ultimately do enjoying forcing myself to try new things.  I suppose to most folks packing up one’s household, driving it 4200 miles to a place one has never lived previously, unloading it and then working to settle into a rural lifestyle after living exclusively urban in the lower 48 for 60 years could qualify as a bit of ‘stretching’ but to me it was fulfilling a dream so I really don’t see it from that same perspective.  Without question I’ve finally found ‘home’ and in this sense the staff and volunteers of KTNA are rather like my extended family.  I am looking forward to really making a place for myself in this eclectic community and I know my on-air volunteering will indeed help this happen..!