The sun is not yet above the horizon at 07:51 AKDT on the Vernal Equinox – which arrived in this area at 02:29 this morning – but it is light enough to see the surrounding space which remains cloaked in a 22.0 inch (55.9 cm) snow pack although the incessant winds across March have cleared virtually all the snow from the trees. Our maximum snow pack was 35.5 inches (90.2 cm) back in middle February but within a week or so of that time all precipitation ceased. This dry spell, coupled with almost Chinook style winds and the longer, sunny days definitely did a number on the slowly compacting snow pack. Yesterday we flirted with 35° F (1.7° C) under sunny skies but at least the winds of March seemed to have weakened to just gentle (8-12 mph or 13-19 kph) breezes. This morning the air is calm for the first time in over two weeks.
As I stare out my second floor office window I can just recognize some suggestions that spring is not far away even here at sixty two degrees north latitude. The exhaust from my Toyo stove, which drifts almost directly across my office window when the air is calm, is much less dense and is occurring less frequently than a few weeks earlier. While we are seeing a -2.2° F (-19° C) air temp I’m also expecting to see an afternoon high around 35° F (1.7° C) under sunny skies. The boughs of the spruce trees are beginning to ‘perk up’ a bit after bearing heavy amounts of snow from late December through middle February. And our direct daylight is now up to 12 hours 17 minutes and increasing daily by 6 minutes 1 second! These longer days are beginning to slowly melt the snow pack even if the air temps remain well below freezing. Indeed, when working towards my goal of 10,000 steps/day – I’m currently around 7,800 steps/day – I have started taking a collapsible walking staff with me as the icy hard packed snow coverage on the back roads is becoming slippery especially when just a thin layer of water appears atop it. This lack of traction is emphasized as I watch my male German Shepherd Dog (Qanuk) perform multiple slips and slides along with a few face plants as he revels in our daily walks. Anana, my female Alaskan Malamute, is more restrained and hence remains upright most of the time. There is something to be said for the wisdom of age!
I finally was able to experience a ‘real’ south central Alaskan winter after three previous ‘winters that weren’t’. I did feel the bite of -40° F (-40° C) air temps, wind chills another ten to fifteen degrees below those temps and an almost three foot snow pack that remained for at least two and a half weeks. I was treated to intense and vibrant auroral displays across much of the late fall when clear skies coincided with the Aurora Borealis. Having completed my fourth consecutive winter in Alaska I think I can finally claim to be a veteran of ‘The Great Land’ and its kaleidoscope of weather conditions. But maybe most surprising to me is I’m actually ready for the seasonal change. During the three previous Vernal Equinoxes I was lamenting the end of winter and not enthusiastic about the oncoming spring with its insects and tourists. But now I find myself awaiting the warmer weather even if it brings mosquitoes and the inevitable tourist traffic and congestion. Perhaps I’m finally becoming sanguine with the aforementioned as well as the knowledge that within five to six weeks there will be no dark night skies again until early September?
Before long I’ll be indulging in what has become a ritual involving preparing for spring and summer. I’ll be swapping tools and equipment between the mud room/front porch and the shed. The generator will be drained of fuel which will go into the Escape’s gas tank. The battery conditioner/recharger will be stowed in the shed and I will be getting the ‘Mosquito Magnet’ ready for operation. I’ll be smearing some ‘bat attractant’ on the entrance to the bat house which my buddy Sarge hung last October; hopefully I’ll attract some Little Brown bats and convince them to set up house and help control the mosquito hordes. In this same vein I’ll be relocating my tree swallow houses for the third time in the hopes I can attract some nesting pairs to add to my attempts at natural mosquito control. So many of these actions are now ‘old friends’ and form a kind of seasonal dance or celebration. For the first time since I relocated I’ll be doing them with joy and the knowledge that regardless of what the upcoming six months may hold for me winter will again return and I will have the opportunity to experience yet another spring, summer and fall in ‘The Great Land’.
The last of the ice on muskeg a bit east of my place on East Barge Drive is disappearing in the image from spring of 2015
I suppose I’m creating this piece as much to remind me of the winter to this point – one which I’ve thoroughly embraced as my first ‘real’ Alaskan winter – as to share with you some thoughts and images. Without question this winter has been extreme and, no surprise, I’ve learned quite a bit more about typical Alaskan weather conditions in the winter months (November through mid-March). As I write this piece I’m seeing overcast skies with an air temp of 34.7° F (1.5° C) after never dropping below 32.8° F (0.4° C) overnight. Yesterday saw light morning snow become briefly heavy in the early afternoon before mixing with and finally changing over to freezing rain and then just rain. For a while conditions were very severe in terms of visibility and traction on the Spur.
I’ve talked with long time locals who claim freezing rain used to be very uncommon and when it did occur it happened as fall slipped into winter and again when winter finally released its grip and acceded to spring. Yet during my four winters up here I’ve seen the dreaded stuff every winter. But I’m really not complaining as this has been a much more typical south central Alaska winter and in being so we’ve seen extremes. Just three days back I saw -14° F (-25.6° C) in ‘downtown’ Talkeetna and the next morning my large circular bimetallic outdoor thermometer showed -19.5° F (-28.6° C) which was verified by my Davis Vantage Pro 2 wireless weather station. But these temps pale next to the string of four days from January 17th through January 20th when we saw lows on January 18th of -32.1° F (-35.6° C) and on January 19th of -41.3° F (-40.7° C); the high on the 18th was -20.1° F (-28.9° C) and on the 19th we saw just -15.5° F (-26.4° C). Our snow pack was a healthy 32.5″ (82.6 cm) before yesterday’s mess; even though we received 1.5″ (3.8 cm) of heavy, wet snow the warm temps and rain really did a number of the snow depth compressing it to 26.5″ (67.3 cm) which I reported to CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow network) this morning. Looking out my office window I can see water dripping from the snow and ice atop the roof; given there’s no direct sunlight this is due only to the warm temps.
Here, then, is a collage of recent images reflecting my first ‘real’ Alaskan winter; hope you enjoy:
A view of my Escape’s dash showing a fairly cool Saturday morning in ‘downtown’ Talkeetna
The Spur heading out of Talkeetna cloaked in heavy snow
Cool sunrise at my place on Sunday, February 12th
Anana and Qanuk enjoying a brief burst of heavy snow outside our place
A very snowy afternoon on East Barge Drive with Anana (center of image) just disappearing into the snow
Anana by the thermometer which is reading much milder temps!
Maybe ten days back I decided to take a brief morning walk along East Barge Drive which is the dirt road, now finally snow packed, that runs by my place. Given the time – around 08:30 – it was naturally pitch black and the recent overcast prevented seeing any light from the waning moon. The air was crisp but not terribly dry and there was no wind. Given the air temp was 4.8° F, and this was warm after seeing -12.5° F yesterday morning, I was quite comfortable in my layered outer wear.
We have a 14.25″ snow pack and thanks to little wind across the past two weeks all the trees are cradling many inches of light, fluffy snow on their limbs and boughs. I love this situation as the already extremely quiet environment is even more silent as the snow in the trees really does create barriers to sound propagation. In addition, I’ve always loved the ‘creeeeak’ created by compressing extremely cold snow. In this morning’s case the snow had just been subjected to over 24 hours of below zero air temps and hence was very cold. With each step my boots created what sounded like an extremely loud ‘creeeeak’ but said sound was almost immediately quieted by the conditions.
The ole homestead in light snow
Normally I wouldn’t take a walk with the kidz in dark conditions because of the potential to wander upon moose without seeing them from a distance. I decided to wear my headset lamp which was a first for me. Within a couple of years of living up here I noticed almost all the locals had a head lamp of some kind; given this I purchased one back in early 2015. I’d used it when working outdoors during dark times but never actually used it to take a walk. I was thoroughly enjoying seeing my small light beam bounce along as the snow creaked beneath my boots and my breath just hung in cold air. Many times I would just stop, turn off the head lamp and enjoy the calm silence. During one of said stops the overcast produced a small gap which allowed the moon to briefly shine through. The effect was breathtaking as the surroundings literally flashed with bright white light yet everything remained dead quiet. I guess given the incredible flare of moonlight I expected some sound..? Seeing this literally took my breath away and I struggled to get my pocket camera free from my vest pocket which was inside my Eddie Bauer rain jacket. Just as I did manage to pull it free the clouds once again occluded the moon and I was standing in darkness with the kidz milling around me no doubt wondering why ‘Dad’ had suddenly stopped.
For the remainder of the walk I reflected upon that event; the amazing timing and series of events that had to coincide for that one moment to occur. I had to be out walking in the dark and decide to turn off my headlamp at just the right time to allow my eyes to adjust to the darkness before that small gap in the overcast moved so perfectly aligned to allow me to catch the full power and beauty of the just now waning moon on the snow covered landscape. Such a myriad of ‘ifs’ that all fell together to create such an incredible sight! In turning this over and over in my mind I realized far too often I just perceive such wonders without giving any thought as to their genesis. In a way I am becoming somewhat jaded reading the majestic scenery of Alaska and that pains me. There is so much wonder and beauty – not just in ‘The Great Land’ but everywhere on our earth and in the heavens around us – everywhere if we are willing to just take a bit of time, absorb the wonder and then reflect upon it if only for a few seconds.
A ‘cool’ afternoon looking west down East Barge Drive; the temp is -8.2° F (-22.3° C)
As you approach the Christmas holiday – or whatever holiday you may be celebrating – please take just a bit of time when something truly extraordinary occurs to consider its genesis and really appreciate its beauty. And make a special effort to do this with family and friends! None of us knows how much time we have remaining to us on this plane so we honestly do not have the time to become jaded or dulled to the wonder around us. And, again, that goes double when interacting with our family and friends. Here’s wishing everyone out there the very Merriest of Christmases and the Happiest New Year yet! And the same to those celebrating different seasonal holidays. We all need to try to live more ‘in the moment’ because in the end that’s all we really can claim…
The Alaska Range awash in Alpenglow taken from the overlook just south of the village of Talkeetna
The ole Homestead the day before the Winter Solstice always looks better with a foot plus of snow!
First off, let me offer up my sincere hopes that everyone out there has the very Merriest of Christmases and the best New Year – or whatever holiday you may celebrate – yet! I apologize for being ‘incommunicado’ of late; the demands of this season coupled with a thorough lack of creative spirit and two weeks spent fighting the ‘disease de jour’ ravaged my blogging. With a bit of luck I should get back into the saddle after New Year’s. I’ve missed sharing some of my thoughts and perceptions with you all but hopefully I will right that issue come January. In the interim please stay happy, healthy and safe! And if you are so blessed, spend as much time as possible with family and friends. We never know how much time we have remaining to us so often it is best to treat each new day like the treasure that it is; after all, it could be our last..!
A cold albeit colorful afternoon sky down south at the intersection of the Spur and the Parks Highway (aka ‘The Glenn Parks, AK 3, etc.) also know by the locals as ‘the ‘Y’…
Fall colors in the boreal forest that make up my ‘yard’
After a warm 2016 right through the end of summer, along with a mix of dry late winter and early spring months followed by some very wet summer months, this fall has started off a bit cool which has stoked my hopes for my first ‘real’ Alaskan winter across 2016 – 2017. I was warned by my neighbors when I first moved up here that winter can, and does, come on quickly and sometimes October sees some serious snow and cold. In checking the history of October snows in Talkeetna I find the month averages 26.67 cm (10.5”); since relocating in 2013 I’ve seen no more than a dusting of snow in any of the following Octobers. Maybe this year the weather will revert to more normal temperatures and precipitation..? One can only hope!
I’ve noticed the gleam in my Alaskan malamute’s (Anana) eyes and the spring in her step with the advent of the repeated hard freezes we experienced last week; she is true to her breed and loves the cooler temperatures of the fall and winter up here. Five of the last six mornings have seen temps drop to below -2.2° C (28° F); this morning we failed to do so only because of cloud cover and drizzle. With this said I’d forgotten how cold drizzle/rain can be up here when the air temp is getting close to the freezing mark. Thanks to said cold rains and some wind 90% of our fall color now carpets the ground; as is typical it was ‘short and sweet’ once again this year. My male GSD (Qanuk) doesn’t care much about the air temps as long as he can get outside and run; this does become problematic when the air temps drop much below -17.8° C (0° F) but I’ve learned to limit the time he exposes his paw pads to such conditions. I now have to carry leads for ‘the kidz’ when we take walks because the mushers are out with their teams pulling ATVs.
With the advent of the cooler air I find myself once again preparing for what I’ve come to know as ‘the fall routine’. This aggregate of necessary activities has been growing each year I’ve lived in semi-rural south central Alaska and has additional items new for the fall of 2016. There’s the ritual shuffle of items between the unattached shed and the mudroom; my battery charger/starter comes from the shed to the mudroom as does any other equipment I may need to access during the winter since every year thus far the snow pack has been sufficient to block the shed door and require shoveling to access. The Toyo Monitor furnace checked out just fine and has been running now for six straight days; I do not recall having to do this until early to middle October in the previous falls. The now almost seven month old gasoline in the two five gallon Jerry cans will be emptied into the gas tank of my Escape and I will refill them, and add a bit of ‘Sta-bil’, within a week. This ensures that should the power fail I’ll have clean and ready gasoline for the generator. I’m also trying something new this year; said generator normally sits on the front porch just outside the front door. Given it is wheeled I plan to unhook the output power line and wheel the unit into my mudroom from November through February when it is really cold. If I lose power during that time I need only wheel it back out to the front porch, hook up the transfer line and fire it up. The real plus will involve the latter; it will be at least 12.8° C (55° F) and so should start very easily. More than once in previous winters I really struggled trying to start the generator when the air temp was well below -17.8° C (0° F).
Time also to lock the windows closed and put up any ‘heat barriers’ in the upstairs ‘spare’ bedroom windows to keep their room temp air from dropping into the single digits Celsius (middle forties Fahrenheit) during cold streaks. As is common in a house which started as a cabin and grew over time there is no good circulation into any of the second floor rooms although I did open a hole in the master bedroom floor and embedded a fan which I can reverse as needed to either pull the warmer main floor air (said hole is right over the Toyo Monitor) into the bedroom or push the cold air near the floor down into the main room. I’ve already unhooked and coiled my water hose; it is stored in the shed. In addition I just removed the last of my window light barriers in the master bedroom; for me this is one of the cardinal signs the fall has arrived. I’ve pulled together all my cameras and camcorders, cleaned them of the summer’s dust and fully recharged their respective batteries in hopes of being able to catch some auroral shows this winter; I’ve done the same with my headlamp batteries. I’ve tested the crawl space heater to insure it is functioning; while it runs very little and only when outside temps drop below -26.0° C (-15° F) for a number of consecutive days it is vital to keeping my pipes from freezing. I’ve also deployed snow shovels to both the front and back porches.
Such chores are really not all that involved but I so enjoy them because they speak to me of the coming snow and cold. And they also remind me of the rhythms of Mother Nature which are so very predominant in ‘The Great Land’. Somehow it just feels so ‘right’ to have such activities dictated by the passage of the seasons. And living in Alaska it is impossible not be aware of the season’s dance…
The following image was taken during my house hunting trip to Talkeetna across the first full week of April, 2013. The actual date of the image is April 10, 2013 which corresponds to the day I made an offer on this property. Notice in particular the snow cover:
At that time there was approximately 34″ of snow pack which had increased to 38″ after a snow event the next evening. I was informed by my realtor and good friend, Holly, that these conditions were pretty typical for early to mid-April in Talkeetna.
Here’s a picture I just snapped maybe fifteen minutes ago. It is just three years and three days from the date of the previous image. Without question the difference in the snow pack is both startling and revealing. Since the winter of 2012-2013, which set records for snow fall across much of Alaska, Talkeetna has seen three consecutive warm and dry ‘winters’ all of which have set records in terms of warmth.
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:
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’