Are you SAD yet?

Everybody is different, but the reduced light in the North and the gloomy weather in many parts of Alaska at this time of year affect almost everyone to some degree or another. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is the fancy name for the winter blues, bad weather blahs, cabin fever, hibernation instinct…fill in the blank with your term. If you are not familiar with the phenomenon, here’s the Mayo Clinic’s briefing.

hours of sunup on Nov 15th

November 15th potential sunlight


Northern areas have much shorter days than more southerly parts of Alaska or elsewhere at this point in the winter, but there are mitigating factors helping them: longer twilight morning and evening, fewer clouds and more reliable snow cover to reflect available light and provide contrast. And don’t forget the aurora borealis, which is seen much more frequently in the north and east parts of the state. Of course there is no getting around the extremely short days in the far north, down to zero mid-winter a ways north of the Arctic Circle (the sun does not break the horizon in Barrow from Nov 20th to Jan 22nd.)

Cloud cover

Even a sliver of sun can help if you are outside to receive it. But, as mentioned above, northern areas have shorter days and lower sun angles, and coastal areas have more clouds and precipitation it’s not easy in Alaska. Some areas are fairly far south yet somewhat protected from the ocean weather, so offer a little more brightness. The Cook Inlet area and north into the Susitna Valley and northeast to the Copper River Basin fit into this category, but as one goes inland from Anchorage it gets colder quickly, and many areas are windy. In Southeast Alaska, the northern end of the Inside Passage, Haines and Skagway, occupy a similar sweet spot, but the wind and sun blocking mountains need to be reckoned with.

Early Nov sun from Haines AK

Early Nov sun from Haines AK

Climate of origin

One hypothesis I’ve promoted is that where you grew up predisposes your mental/physical response to the weather and daylight. If you were raised in a sunny area, you’re going to have a harder time with the dark and cloudy seasons. All I have is the stories of people I’ve met, but I don’t think the idea is too far-fetched. I’d love to hear reader’s stories or opinions on this.

What to do?

Wherever you are from, here are some of my suggestions to get through the winter:

  • get outside as much as possible
  • exercise regularly
  • have a variety of activities
  • go to Mexico

Well, I’ve not yet made it Mexico, but I do make it to the pool. Our pool is warm, humid and brightly lit. It’s got everything but the sand and food carts.

My other favorite exercise is cross country skiing. A combination of a total body workout, fresh air, natural light and the exhilaration of gliding down the hills make it unbeatable in my book. And it need not be a cold activity. You can produce a lot of heat skiing. There’s nothing nicer than skiing for a while, then stopping and thinking to yourself, “I’m comfortably warm all over, despite the weather.” You can do that in the cold. You can’t do that it the heat.

With the El Nino winter ahead, I’m not counting on a lot of powdery snow in coastal areas this winter, so its nice to have the pool.

Summer SAD:

A surprise to some is that SAD is not a winter-only issue. There are people who suffer in the summer. I’m not talking about those who live in hot or hot/humid places and simply can’t wait for cool weather so they can get outside, etc. The surprising effect is on those of us who live where sunny, warm weather comes in small batches sprinkled into a cool, cloudy climate. When there is a longer than normal stretch of sunny summer weather, we can experience a barely conscious nervousness, perhaps spawned by worries of over-exposure and the feeling, when inside,  that we are not taking advantage of the good weather to recreate or get things done outside. Another unease is the feeling that something is not right, as in “we don’t deserve this much sun.” Some people get a little manic, can’t sustain it and burn out. Some people genuinely have a hard time with the constant brightness (remember how long the days are in summer). People with these symptoms probably grew up in a cloudy climate, a reverse corollary to my theory above. Here’s a post about this subtopic from UW prof. Cliff Mass’s NW weather blog.

Please let me know in the comments your winter happy strategies. The exception is if you are writing from the tropics, then keep it to yourself.

Celebrating the end of the snow drought

happy skierWhile some folks back east may have been mightily inconvenienced by recent snows, here in Alaska most people like to see a little snow in the winter. This winter many of us have seen very little. Here in Haines, one of the snowiest sea level towns anywhere, things were looking pretty brown until last week, when we got almost a foot of nice light snow. You could almost hear the relief around town, as folks got back into the swing of snow removal, or dusted off their skis. My family did both, plus made a batch of snow ice cream. (Never made snow ice cream? Strangely, as a meteorologist, Alaskan, skier, etc, I’d not even heard of it for my first 20-some years in Alaska! I was going do a whole post on snow ice cream but discovered it’s not the novelty I thought it was…just Google it.) Read the rest of this entry »

Sea breezes: an Alaskan spring-summer staple

You’ve heard it said…Alaska has sooo much coastline… We do, about 34,000 miles (54,700 km) worth, and we have the perfect weather phenomenon to go with it: the sea breeze. The sea breeze is a local wind blowing from water to land arising from the relative warmth of the land vs. the water. Warmer land leads to rising and/or expanding air and lowers the surface pressure, drawing in the cool  air off the water. It is not unique to Alaska–It is found Read the rest of this entry »

Is April a dire weather month in Alaska?

I try to keep the number of errors in my Alaska Weather Calendar to a minimum. I have a team of freelance editors and proofreaders to help me, otherwise it would be hopeless. My hat is off to them. Nonetheless, errors slip by, Read the rest of this entry »

Alaska weather on a roller coaster

Wind-blown dust in Haines and other places.


Red flag wildfire danger for the Mat Valley.

Strong pressure gradient along coast.

Back into the freezer

The strong “January thaw” that pushed well into the interior and tied the all time January record for Alaska is being pushed toward the back of our memories by seasonal and colder weather. Boy, it feels colder after a long warm spell! Wind chills here in northern Southeast Alaska are bouncing down to 5 to 15F below zero (-20C to -26C) at times. Read the rest of this entry »

Flying through the JAWS of Southeast Alaska Weather

While waiting to board my Alaska Airlines flight from Juneau to Seattle April 9, the all-to-common announcement came over the PA about a likely weather delay. As I happened to have my laptop handy with Internet access available, I quickly checked the Juneau airport weather observations. I did not see any weather issue that would keep the 737 on the ground. The ceiling and visibility were way above minimums. The wind was strong, but pretty well aligned with the runway…not too bad. Here are the observations in METAR format (click here for help in reading them).

PAJN 091353Z 12021G36KT 10SM -RA FEW018 BKN036 OVC050 06/02 A2918 RMK AO2
     PK WND 12036/1349 PRESFR SLP880 P0001 T00560022
PAJN 091453Z 13028G37KT 7SM -RA FEW013 BKN032 OVC045 05/03 A2914 RMK AO2 
     PK WND 13041/1431 SLP867 VIS LWR S-SW P0000 60004 T00500028 58048 

PAJN 091553Z 12022G33KT 3SM -RA FEW013 BKN032 OVC045 05/03 A2912 RMK AO2 
     PK WND 12036/1501 SLP859 P0004 T00500033

What was I missing? Before I could dig deeper, one of the pilots got on the PA and re-educated me, and the whole crowd–mostly seasoned Alaskan flyers with way more weather and aviation savvy than you’d find at a typical airport down south. Read the rest of this entry »

Signs of Spring in Alaska

We’re a few days into Spring, at least according to astronomers. Last Wednesday (3/20) was the Vernal (Spring) equinox–equal night, equal day. While the flowers may be blooming many places in the Lower 48, such traditional signs of spring are a long way off here in the frozen north. But here are a few signs of the season for this equinox time of year in Alaska: Read the rest of this entry »

Two kinds of cold in Alaska

Dry cold, wet cold?   no.

Winter cold and summer cold?  no. Bitterly cold vs extremely cold?  no. Calm vs windy cold? close.

All these would make good blog subjects, but what I’m thinking about today is domestic cold vs imported cold. Seriously.

I have a good recent example. Read the rest of this entry »