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’
Those of you following this blog will recognize my continued fascination with meteorology in general and Alaskan weather in particular. This is especially true when focusing on winter weather which, since I relocated to Talkeetna in August of 2013, has been rather mild to say the least. Thus far even though the ‘official’ start of winter is still five weeks out we’re finally seeing some very Alaskan winter weather. In early November we saw snow across a couple of days accumulate to around 10” (25.4 cm). This was followed by a week of extremely cold temps featuring a roughly 84 hour period during which we never reached 0°F (-17.8°C) and saw a couple days of -17.2°F (-27.3°C) low temps and one day when we bottomed out at -20.3°F (-29.1°C). The recent cold snap was broken by a series of storms coming across the Bering Sea from Russia the largest of which dumped around 15” (38.1 cm) across an 18 hour period. Since then we’ve seen an additional 7” (17.8 cm) leaving us with, after accounting for settling, a current snow pack of 26.5” (67.3 cm).
Anana enjoying the snow
I have reveled in the cold and snow and do indeed hope it is the harbinger of my first ‘real’ Alaskan winter. During the past 27 months I’ve been settling into my Talkeetna lifestyle I’ve experienced many learnings and with each one I’ve become better prepared to handle some of the extreme weather conditions which can and do befall this magnificent state. By far the most extreme conditions occur in winter so the focus of my preparations have been skewed to these expected conditions. I added a new wood burning stove to my place last month and it did come in handy during the recent cold snap. But I also ended up with a cord of unseasoned birch, sold to me as ‘seasoned’, so my use of said stove has been limited to the wood my friends have shared with me. However, I now know what to look for regarding seasoned birch so the experience was not a complete loss. In addition I will be able to continue splitting, stacking and ‘tarping’ this wood with an eye to using it next winter.
My wardrobe has also increased slightly with the addition of a pair of good quality gaiters which are almost a necessity if one is to try to wade two plus feet of snow. I also have a pair of heavily padded mittens for use when the air temp drops below -10°F (-23.3°C). My buddy Sarge has fixed me up with a first rate winch system which allows me to mount the winch on either front or back trailer hitches; in addition the winch can pivot to provide an optimal angle for pulling my Escape out of a snowy trap. With the current snow pack the time is ideal for trying out my snowshoes; I intend to see just how ungainly and awkward they are today. I’ve never been one to sit around during winter feeling cooped up by the weather because I truly do enjoy the cold and snow.
At this point I feel very much ready to face the Alaskan winter regardless of its severity but at the same time I have immense respect for the season and understand one can quickly find one’s self in a life or death situation. My Escape is outfitted with moose lights (‘driving lights’ in the lower 48), the aforementioned winch system, my winter survival kit – extra gloves, sweatshirt, food, candles, space blanket, knife, 100’ (30.9 meters) of para-cord, folding shovel and similar – as well as a snow shovel and towing straps. Regardless, I have learned that I never venture out even if I just plan to make a quick run to the ‘Y’ or into the village without being dressed for the conditions and wearing boots capable of handling a walk in the snow should something happen to the Escape. Gone are the days in the lower 48 when I might dash out in winter wearing just a windbreaker and tennis shoes!
With a bit of luck perhaps I will finally be able to experience a real Alaskan winter; for me this would entail seeing a 36” to 60” (0.91 meters to 1.5 meters) snow pack and experiencing at least one morning low in the -30°F to -40°F (-34.4°C to -40°C) range. Time will tell and if I’ve learned one thing about Alaskan weather it will be wildly variable and can be extremely pernicious…
The ‘kidz’ playing on snowy East Barge Drive
The ole homestead with new snow cover
It’s official; I’ve given up on the 2014-2015 ‘winter’ in south central Alaska! Although it is just March 2nd and in a normal winter up here we’d be seeing snow and cold for at minimum another six weeks I’m betting we’ll see few snow events and those we see will be minimal (i.e. less than 6” total) in nature. I’m sure we’ll see cold temps just as we have across the past four days but then we are already seeing regular high temps that break freezing if the sun is out even if we started with a single digit morning low temp. Of course this reflects the lengthening days and with them the more direct sunlight but in a typical March we’d still be seeing snow and cold and that would easily extend into April.
This morning I measured the SWE (snow water equivalent) along with the snow depth for my Monday morning CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow network) report; the snow depth is a piddling 12.5” and it really isn’t snow but more like saturated snow or ice. The SWE is 3.09” which equates to one inch of water equaling 4.045” of snow. Anyone at all familiar with snow knows that in general an inch of liquid water will produce between 7 and 10 inches of snow; therefore this ‘snow’ is indeed saturated! Looking back over February we broke the freezing mark 17 out of 28 days; keep in mind February is the third coldest month after December and January! That basically means 61% of the days in the third coldest month in south central Alaska saw above freezing high temps. Many comments come to mind but perhaps the most PC is: “That’s just wrong!”
Most frustrating to me is the simple realization that this winter will go down in the records as one of the two warmest on the books; and the competition is last year’s ‘winter’! So for the first two winters I’ve lived in Alaska there have been two record-breaking warm and dry ‘winters’. Lest you need reminding I moved up here to experience feet of snow and bone chilling cold; the former hasn’t happened while we’ve seen maybe five days each ‘winter’ when the temps dropped below -20 F. I swore if I see three such ‘winters’ in a row I was going to leave here and move north of Fairbanks; sadly this would only partly improve on the conditions as even the northern Interior has seen record warmth across the past two ‘winters’.
Meanwhile the place I left – SE Michigan – saw record snow last winter and has seen well above normal snow along with very cold temps across both winters. Prior to leaving I was just fed up with SE Michigan’s winters which were largely brown with 36 F temps and rain. In fact the winter of 2012-2013 saw a record absence of both snow and cold. I recall thinking I didn’t care what the weather did in Michigan after I departed because I was guaranteed of seeing all the cold and snow I could handle in my new home. So much for that belief…!!
So here I sit typing this whining blog entry while looking outside, seeing bright sunshine and an air temp of 26.4 F at 12:13 AKST. If the sunshine remains we’ll easily cross 32 F by 17:15 which is the current warmest part of the day. It is amazing that just six weeks back it was totally dark by 17:15; the light cycle is really exaggerated in the higher latitudes. And I am looking forward to being able to get some much-needed outside work handled once a bit more of the icy snow-pack disappears. I gave up a lot in terms of favored weather to relocate up here; I love severe thunderstorms and tornadic weather but neither of these occur at any time up here. I also gave up the hardwood colors of fall when moving here; while the yellows and golds of the birch and larches are pretty I do miss the reds, oranges and violets or the maples, oaks and elms. And I really do not care for the summer and its continual light! I never realized how much of a night sky watcher I am until I completed my first full Alaskan summer in 2014; by the start of July I was very tired of constant light with no night sky. The real issue is such conditions will not return until middle August. At least the summers up here are much cooler than those in SE Michigan although because I live in the middle of the boreal forest the humidity is almost as bad.
By penning this I’ve demonstrated I’m no Alaskan yet as real Alaskans just shrug off unusual weather and get on with business. I just have a hard time when I realize now I will not be seeing the possibility for a true Alaskan winter until November of 2015! However, beyond the weather there’s a myriad to love about my home and I really need to focus on all that and just let go of the lack of real winter weather to this point. A few of the locals have warned me to be careful what I wish for; while I hear them I would love to see four feet of snow-pack and weeks of air temps rising to just single digits while dropping into the negative teens or even lower! Hopefully one day I will get the opportunity before I’m too old to really appreciate such conditions. But given what I’ve seen to date such conditions are at best very unlikely this ‘winter’. And so I’ve plunged my imaginary fork into the ‘winter’ of 2014-2015 as it is ‘done’!
What I should be seeing when I walk to the intersection of East Barge Drive and Riven. Sadly the unmaintained portion of EBD has bits of the gravel road surface visible through the disappearing snow and ice even though it’s just now March.
Although it is February 24th in south central Alaska one could be forgiven for being confused when seeing the high temperature break freezing the last eleven consecutive days and huge spans of ice shimmering with liquid water atop their expanses. Indeed, as I contemplate my second Alaskan winter – and I use the term ‘winter’ loosely – I’m once again forced to realize this has been an even milder and drier ‘winter’ than the record-setting warmth that helped the 2013 – 2014 Alaskan winter enter the books as the warmest on record. As of this writing Anchorage, 112 miles to the south, is 30” short of ‘normal’ snow fall and with temps forecast to be in the middle to upper 30’s right into the first week in March there’s not much hope for any near term relief. My own observations show Talkeetna is just 12% of ‘normal’ snow-pack and our ten-day forecast shows no real snow and a lot of temps at or slightly above freezing.
Meanwhile the eastern half of the lower 48 is once again racking up the snow fall totals and seeing some cold weather although nothing like the previous winter’s cold. It doesn’t escape my notice that the past two winters would have been much more to my liking in terms of snow and cold had I remained in SE Michigan as versed with moving to south central Alaska. I understand that one or even two ‘winters that weren’t’ does not validate global warming although after having experienced the past 19 months up here I do not doubt that the climate in this portion of the sub-Arctic is warming. And it is not just this immediate area that’s seeing extreme warmth; witness moving the start of the historic Iditarod race to Fairbanks in search of reasonable snow and cold. Last week Fairbanks was warmer than places in Georgia! A few weeks back I saw reports of freezing rain in Deadhorse; my God, that’s on the North Slope up against the Beaufort Sea!!
Most folks in the Lower 48 don’t really understand our situation; we really are hurting when we cannot get snow and this is exacerbated by above freezing temps. We have a comparatively deep frost line and when we do not get snow in November and most of December but do see seasonable temps this can push that line even deeper. Then, when we see this absurd warmth coupled with a lack of snow fall, the terrain experiences a lot of melting of what snow and ice exist. However, because the ground is still frozen solid and is so quite a ways down the accumulated snow and ice doesn’t just melt off and disappear. Rather, it remains in place and slowly converts to just ice. When we get drizzle and showers or even the dreaded freezing rain the precipitation that falls doesn’t freeze atop this ice; instead it forms a thin layer of liquid water. I, for one, know of little else that is more slippery than a thin layer of water atop smooth ice. Salt is not used on roads in Alaska with the exception of around the Anchorage bowl; gravel is the main treatment but it just turns to mud and eventually runs off the ice in these circumstances. The paved roads can be repeatedly scraped by the plows and they are usually in good shape. But the back roads are sheets of ice, as are most parking lots, which become impossible to walk upon because they are so slick. Just five or six inches of snow atop these conditions would remedy the slippery nature but we just cannot seem to even buy such a minimal snow fall.
So when we Alaskans complain of a lack of snow and cold it is not just out of aesthetic concerns; it can be a matter of our very health. I heard last May that the Sunshine Clinic in Talkeetna had treated a record number of broken ankles, legs and feet due to these kinds of conditions. Assuming this was true we could well see another record this ‘winter’. Without question I will be purchasing a pair of the sandals that have studs driven into the soles before next winter; at least they will give some purchase on the skating rinks we call back roads and parking lots. But mostly I, and a whole state full of people, would just like to see our ‘normal’ winters return!!
A view of Riven Street looking south towards East Barge Drive; notice the myriad patches of water atop the ice. Even my Mal Anana had trouble remaining upright!
As we rapidly approach the calendar start of winter – the Winter Solstice occurring on December 21st this year at 14:03 AKST while the meteorological start to the season was December 1st – I once again find myself contemplating the boreal forest and the sky above its mix of birch and spruce trees. I spend far too much time parked in front of a monitor but I do have a large window just three feet to my left which looks out from the second floor office into the immediate surroundings. We still remain far short of snow with just 7.5 inches of snow pack and the temperatures have been see-sawing back and forth around the freezing point which is exceptionally warm. All told this looks to be my second consecutive ‘winter that wasn’t’; while not happy with the prospect I am working to become more sanguine with this concept…maybe next year?
Yet there’s still a lot to marvel at in my new Alaskan home and one of those observations is the extremely low angle to the sunlight this time of year. While out walking ‘the kidz’ yesterday early afternoon I was reflecting upon just how much the partly cloudy sky resembled an early sunrise or sunset; the underside of many of the Altocumulus stratiformis clouds of the mid-altitude cloud deck were orange and red while the few Cirrus intortus at a higher elevation were brilliant white tinged with fiery yellow against the azure sky. I had to remind myself this was just 13:25 AKST and thus only a bit more than half way through our current 5 hour, 3 minute and 47 second direct sunlight period; according to my tables the solar ‘noon’ occurred at 12:56 AKST. Although there were still many clouds on the western horizon when I could see it – the boreal forest really surrounds this area – the sun was indeed very low. Just how low is ‘low’? Using NOAA’s Solar Position Calculator (http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/grad/solcalc/azel.html) I calculated just 5.4 degrees above the horizon at 12:59 AKST.
This is extremely low; for comparison using Detroit (MI) on this same date and the same time (12:59 EST) I came up with an angle of 23.94 degrees. No wonder this former Midwest boy thinks the sun is darn low up here! Of course I was aware of this phenomenon as its fairly straightforward physics represented using geometry but to actually be standing on a shadowed, snow-covered back road surrounded by the immense and silent boreal forest while marveling the sun can hardly be seen even between the breaks in the trees really brings the concept home. I know from previous experience that on the summer solstice a few hours later the sun will reach almost 52 degrees above the horizon; what a difference!
I’d heard many folks – mainly photographers – talk about ‘flat light’ and they often bemoaned its influence at the higher latitudes. Only after I relocated up here did I come to understand just what flat light is and how it can negatively affect photographs. The sunlight striking the higher latitudes in their winter season is forced to travel through a lot more atmosphere to reach the surface of the earth because of the curvature of the earth’s surface. This helps create the lack of shadowing and an overall ‘softness’ to the resultant light which produces a dearth of real detail. Thus many images taken under such circumstances lack a myriad of subtle visual clues the human eye uses to establish depth of field and hence a degree of three dimensionality to the picture. I saw this many times when I first started shooting images up here although not until I actually relocated to ‘The Great Land’ did I really see this effect in winter shots. My eyes and brain compensate for the loss of such cues when I’m just using my normal visual reception but these clues are not reproduced in an image and hence they often look two-dimensional and tending towards a lack of contrast and monochromatic. As good as my eyes and brain are at dealing with this situation it becomes apparent to me when just walking around this area in the depth of winter; it seems as though everything is composed of either white (snow and birch trees), green (spruce trees) or black (shadows). The sky will appear blue when clear but it is often overcast in winter and hence it is a shade of gray. This can be somewhat disconcerting and I can easily see how trying to land aircraft on snow under such conditions causes crashes due to the loss of reference points.
Living in the higher latitudes remains endlessly fascinating to me as there is so much about these circumstances that is quite different from those found in the lower 48. It often seems as though so many aspects are distorted and done so in the direction of exacerbation; I now more fully appreciate way Alaska is often referred to as a ‘land of extremes’. I find the more I’m willing to look around me with an inquisitive eye the more I find that fascinates me in my new home.
Taken from my main floor this view is looking SSE across my property; further in the distance but not viewable is Question Lake. Notice the lack of depth and absence of any feeling of three dimensions…
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
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!
Blue plastic string can grow frost quite nicely!