Tale of Three ‘Winters That Weren’t’

Once again the incredible power of Mother Nature is on display in ‘The Great Land’ as we are now seeing a bit over fourteen and a half hours of direct sunlight each day and that is increasing by six minutes with each 24 hour cycle.  This amazing land truly amplifies seasonal shifts to the point they become almost mind boggling.  Just eleven weeks in the past we were struggling to get a mere five hours of sunlight yet now the sun doesn’t set until 21:18 AKDST after rising at 06:47 AKDST!  By the time we make the summer solstice on June 20th we’ll see 19 hours and 55 minutes of direct sunlight with the sun rising at 04:05 AKDST and setting at 00:00 AKDST yet this is just ten weeks from now.  It is indeed a wild roller-coaster ride in terms of light and dark but one which folks living in the higher latitudes are all too familiar.

Talkeetna is easily three weeks ahead of past ‘norms’ for weather conditions as we’re already into break up with open water appearing on lakes, ponds and streams.  The gravel back roads are almost completely free of snow and ice and some are even dried to the point vehicular traffic generates dust.  We have wildly varying snow cover based mostly on the extreme amount of ice generated last November into December; ice just does not melt as quickly as snow.  Currently I’m estimating 80% snow cover but that figure involves the boreal forest which surrounds this area; any surface which is relatively free of tree cover is almost bare regarding snow and ice.  And this trend models the past winter which was probably the mildest in terms of temperatures in Alaska’s history.  In addition the precipitation was also extremely low making this winter and subsequent ‘early spring’ almost a carbon copy of the previous period.

In fact, the past three winters have been the mildest on record for the state thanks largely to the huge blob of warm water apparently anchored in the Gulf of Alaska – it is running 1.5° C to 2° C above normal – and the record sized El Nino of the past two years.  I suspect this could well be further evidence for a warming climate although I also know that three warm winters does not a trend make..!!  Because I am a ‘weather weenie’ with a bit of a scientific bent I collect daily meteorological data from my Davis Vantage PRO 2 weather station and often review this data.  In so doing I created the following analysis of the past three winters:

3 Winters

I chose the five month period from November through March as that has covered the main ‘winter’ months although five or more years back I would have also added April.  This fact by itself speaks to the warming and subsequent shortening of the recent Alaskan winters.  The small amount of data I reviewed has suggested a number of trends.  The average mean temp across the aforementioned five months by year shows a slow increase (+3.4° F) while the number of days with temps below 0° F shows a slow decrease (11 fewer days) across the same period.  Interestingly, February shows up as the coldest month based on my data yet historical records show January is normally the coldest month in this area with December a close second.  The chart showing the monthly mean temps shows amazing variation; only the line for the winter of 2014-2015 shows anything close to what one would expect.  The trace for 2013-2014 does show cooler temps in December and February but January is extraordinarily warm beating January 2016’s mean temp by 7.1° F and January 2014’s mean temp by a whopping 15.2° F!  Meanwhile, the line for 2015-2016 shows December was the coolest month – as predicted by the historical data and averaged across the previous roughly 70 years to be 11.3° F* – but then the temperatures just continued to warm across January, February and March.  None of these years showed an average January temperature equal to the historical 9.9° F monthly average.  Maybe most telling is the historical mean temp for March is 21.6° F yet the mean temp for March of 2014 was 23.4° F (+1.8° F) while that for March of 2015 was 25.0° F (+3.4° F) with last month’s figure even warmer at 28.5° F (+6.9° F).

All of this information serves mainly to suggest that Alaska has seen a dramatic warming of its winters since 2013 and to this point I do not see anything indicative of a change to this trend.  The recent El Nino should subside, it is already showing some weakening, and that will help allow for cooler winter temps but until the warm waters of the northern Pacific Ocean either equalize or move away from the Gulf of Alaska I suspect we will continue to see much above normal winter temperatures.  The real question in my mind is how much of the Pacific warming is due to climate change?  Without question much more study and analyses are required before this question can be answered.  As someone who loves snow and cold I’m not at all optimistic regarding our near term winter conditions.  If there is a silver lining to this pattern it could be such warm and dry winters bring about an early thaw and snow melt.  This, in turn, allows the water from the snow melt to sink into the floor of the boreal forest or evaporate before it can form the small, shallow pools the mosquitoes use for breeding.  I suppose if I cannot see those much sought after -30° F air temps or that four foot snow pack at least I can enjoy a spring, summer and fall sans those nasty little blood suckers…

*Historical weather data courtesy of NWS and ‘climate-zone.com’

A Dearth of Snow…

What a difference a year can make at least in terms of weather conditions! Just one year ago today light snow started falling in the early afternoon and continued to build in intensity across the remainder of November 9th and continued snowing moderately right into the early afternoon of the 10th. When the snow fall finally ceased the Talkeetna area saw anywhere from 11” of snow up to 14” with 12” being the average accumulation. This turned out to be the single largest snow event of what is now the history making ‘winter that wasn’t’ of 2013 – 2014. Right up through the first week in November we’d seen well above normal air temps and record-setting precipitation but all in the form of rain except on brief period of snow showers in late October. The mosquitoes actually hung on through all of October and were still biting in early November. What a change from this year when the little blood suckers all but disappeared in middle September but then we saw slightly below normal rain for September and only 30% of the normal 2.90” of precipitation in October. In addition our air temps were slightly below normal for all of September and even more so across October.  While we did see some snow and cold across November and into middle December both January and February set all time records for warmth and we ended up at just 40% of typical snow fall for the season.

So heaven knows it has been plenty cold enough to snow but we’ve just lacked the moisture to this point. And sadly it appears this dry trend is continuing into November. Across the last three weeks we’ve seen many single digit morning lows which is more typical of December and February but the air remains very dry. As such it’s a safe bet to say we will not see a major snow event today or at any time this week. Most of the locals are literally chomping at the bit to see accumulating snow and I’m right there with them! Since early October I’ve seen more and more dog teams out and about pulling ATVs; it’s a safe bet they’d much prefer to be hauling a sled through a ‘white world’. But Mother Nature is just not cooperating with our wishes, at least to this point. After the disappointment of last ‘winter’ I am so hoping to experience a true Alaskan winter this year replete with feet of accumulated snow, temps dropping into the -20 F to -30 F range and some real winter storms. I was told last year that even the aforementioned 12”+ snow fall in early November was just a small snow event and storms producing half again as much snow were not uncommon. I would truly love to see a real storm dump two feet or more across a day or two; that’s more like what I envisioned when I moved up here.

As those of you who follow this blog are aware I love meteorology and have a special love of cold and snow. I knew prior to my relocation I would be giving up almost all my beloved thunderstorms but I was hoping extreme snow and cold would help make up for this loss. Last summer I believe I heard thunder maybe five times and saw lightning once far away against the Talkeetna Mountains; this is a far cry from what I was used to experiencing living in places like SE Michigan, SW Ohio and south central Wisconsin. It is not lost on me that the largest single snow event I experienced occurred in the early 1980’s in – of all places – Greenville, Illinois which is 70 miles ENE of St. Louis. In early February a freak storm dropped two inches of rain before contacting cold air from the plains which switched the precipitation over to snow and in just 16 hours it accumulated 28”! This shut down St. Louis for three days and made national headlines. It just seems odd for someone who has lived in so many much more northerly locations across so many decades.

For now I remain just hopeful that we will eventually see moisture intermingle with our currently cool air and produce snow. I also hope and pray last ‘winter’ was truly the anomaly it was made out to be and we will see a more normal Alaskan winter for the 2014 – 2015 season. Outside it is growing darker as we pick up a southeasterly flow pulling up some moisture from the Pacific Ocean but sadly if we even see any snow today it will be mainly in the form of more snow showers. In the end it’s all up to Mother Nature and she’s already shown me she can be as fickle as the day is long. But I remain hopeful she will slide back into her ‘old ways’ and provide this area with a real Talkeetna winter…

The most snow we've seen this season is pathetically small, at least to this point..!

The most snow we’ve seen this season is pathetically small, at least to this point..!