Not the last great Alaska snow race

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Today is the start of the world famous Iditarod trail sled dog race (“the last great race”), so I thought maybe I should give an report on another (unofficial) great race: the Alaska snow race. It has been a very snowy winter in many parts of Alaska and there is plenty of talk and a little bragging and comparing between towns, so why not make a little fun of it? In no way am I wanting to make light of the real hardships experienced in places like Cordova and Valdez, where schools were closed for more than an isolated “snow day” due to fears of structural failure of school buildings, among other problems. Believe me, I understand the issue of dealing with tons of snow, since I live in one of the major league snow towns (Haines). What I want to do is compare details of a longer list of places facing heavy snow this winter, and look at why. First the standings, as of the leap day checkpoint: units are inches for snow and feet for elevation.

table

The rankings are based on the snowfall this season as a percent of the climatological average, which I think is a fair handicapping system. Note that the snowfall is only through February, but compared to the whole season average (so I can update the graphs as the winter progresses). So, many places have already passed the yearly average—some around doubled–with six or more weeks left to add to it. Here are graphs for some of the front runners. The solid red line is this year’s cumulative snow, the dashed red is the long-term average. The black lines are for snow depth, same patterns:

hns

Now I may be partial, but any way you look at it Haines is having a big snow year and in fact is breaking the all time record right about as I write this. However, if you take a close look at the table you will see that there are fewer years of data for Haines than for most of the others. This can make it statistically easier to break records, depending on the particular years involved. On the other hand, the other two stations with similar length of record (Haines Customs and Valdez), are back a ways in the pack, aren’t they?

yak

Yakutat does not get the spotlight often…it’s a small, isolated town even by Alaska standards, but is hosts a 1st order NWS weather station complete with upper air balloon soundings. It is also one of the wettest spots in Alaska you might be surprised at how much snow it gets considering its location right on the exposed (and mild) pacific coast. The high snow is mostly due to the huge volume of all precipitation, and in fact the great majority of the precipitation falls as rain. In high snow years, there is still rain, and with more snow on the ground or roofs to absorb and hold it, the snowpack and building snow loads are all the heavier. Cordova was hit with this effect also and had more than a few roofs fail.

adq

Kodiak is not thought of as a heavy snow location, but with the relative ranking system in use we can see why they deserve 2nd place at the moment. But look at the snow depth lines (solid black line for this year, dashed black for average). Storms hit the emerald Isle with such frequency and ferocity, and enough of them are of a warm trajectory, that melting episodes rarely let much of a snow pack build up.

brw

You can se by this poorly scaled graph that Barrow gets way less snow than most areas in Alaska. But the snow season is long with virtually no melting from October through April and usually well into May. This year they are a little better than double on snowfall, but only slightly high on snow depth. I’m not prepared to say why this is, but will say this: It is extremely problematic measuring either snowfall or snow depth in a windy place such as barrow. Studies have indicated significant under measuring of precipitation at arctic coastal locations due to problems of getting a representative amount of snow to drop into the gauge.

anc

Anchorage hosts the start of the Iditarod race. Well, the ceremonial start anyway, but the teams do need to mush across the city to the outskirts, which does require snow. This year snow conditions should not worry the organizers. In some past years they’ve had to shorten the ceremonial start, shift the real start between various location in the Susitna Valley, and one year relocate to Fairbanks! Conditions should also be good for the next day’s Tour of Anchorage ski marathon, the nation’s 2nd largest ski race.

vdz

Valdez has always been the crowd pleasing favorite, simply because they are almost impossible to beat in a head-to-head race. I’m still looking for a snowier sea level town on the planet. Let me know if you find one. (By town I mean a place where people live, and at minimum has a post office.) The records held here are only eclipsed by mountain locations such as nearby Thompson Pass. And the weather records we’re talking about are fairly short in years and taken in the new city, reputed to be less snowy than the old city that was abandoned after the 1964 earthquake. The record snow depth seems too low, but I did find a 194 inch snow depth record at another station in Valdez. But let’s stick to apples vs. apples in this evaluation. More sleuthing could done.

Also rans

Before you ask, “What about such and such a place?”, I need to say that I’ve only included inhabited places with decent historical and current snow data. There are surprisingly few stations that meet that criteria. Most of them are on the table above, although I did not bother to add several the are not really in the running this year for heavy snow (Fairbanks slipped in). Some other places deserve mention:

Cordovans where hit hard with a heavy snow load this year (see description under the Yakutat graph) and were in the news for a while. Cordova doesn’t get nearly as much snow as Valdez, but, as mentioned, it’s the water content that counts, and they do get more precipitation overall. Much of Prince William Sound is similar. See my post on snow density.

Mountain stations are in a different class. There are precious few mountain weather stations with snow data, and many of them only operate for a few years. Thompson Pass (2500′) holds most of the snow records for the United States–including 175.4 inches of snowfall in 5 days–based on only a few years of data. The truth is, all the coastal mountains from the northern panhandle to the Kenai Peninsula are similarly snowy. Look at a map and look where the glaciers are. It’s a combination of the coolness of higher altitude and increased precipitation due to upslope lifting that causes the tremendous snow in our coastal mountains. Alyeska and Eaglecrest ski areas of course make their  snow stats easy to find and get some impressive loads. This year Alyeska (near Anchorage) had gotten 629 inches as of 2/29 compared to their seasonal average of around 717 inches. (Alyeska only records snow Nov 1 through Apr 30 thus the actual numbers are no doubt higher). In 2000-2001 they recorded 939 inches…that’s the winter a rash of huge avalanches put most of the Kenai Peninsula under siege. Eaglecrest is closer to average so far this year. There are some links to mountain weather stations given at the end of the post.

Fjords extending inland in SC and SE Alaska tend to get much more snow than more exposed coastal locations, and in fact Haines and Valdez are good examples. A coastal location provides a lot of precipitation, but often too much warmth. Being tucked up in a fjord keeps much of the precipitation but allows more influence from cold interior air that tends to flow out of valleys. There are not too many towns in this situation. Besides the two mentioned there is Hyder, tucked way back in. They are way snowier than their southerly latitude would suggest. Seward is another, with moderately high snowfall, and Whittier is like Yakutat, with extreme amounts of rain and snow. In the same group are two hydro projects near Juneau with very good and current climate records, Snettisham and Annex Creek. They average 214 and 248 inches per year respectively and this year are currently running 120 and 139 percent over that, consistent with Juneau percentage-wise, but way higher in actual amounts, though all three are near sea level and near each other. The two power plants are “up-fjord”…more inland.

Parts of the Alaska Range come close to the coastal ranges in snowfall. This can be seen in some of the valley and foothill locations such as Skwentna, Talkeetna, Chulitna and Cantwell, which get over 100 to close to 200 inches per year, average. That’s just a hint of what is going on higher up. Again look at the glaciers…there are plenty in the Alaska Range and on southwest into the Aleutian Range. The Iditarod trail passes through Skwentna on its way through the mountains at Rainy Pass. It’s much direr on the west side, and some years low snow makes for hard going over the rough farewell burn area. It should not be a problem this year.

Finally, the Bering Sea and Aleutian islands are surprisingly snowy. St. Paul Island averages about 60 inches per year (and has already bettered that this year–see more data in the table above). Adak, the southernmost city in Alaska, averages close to 100 inches of snow per year. That’s 3 times as much as Annette Island even though Annette (at the southern end of the Southeast panhandle and island of the village of Metlakatla) is almost 200 miles farther north, next to a potential source of cold continental air, and receives twice as much yearly precipitation! The seeming discrepancy is collaborated by other Aleutian stations such as Dutch Harbor (95 inches snow per year) and Shemya (85 inches). I find this fascinating and invite readers to submit ideas for why this is so in the comments. I’ll try to address it in replies or a future blog article.

Here are some links to good snow data:

…For most cities and low altitude stations:

http://pajk.arh.noaa.gov/cliMap/akClimate.php  or  http://www.arh.noaa.gov/clim/akcoopclim.php  or http://pafc.arh.noaa.gov/cliMap/akClimate.php

These are the somewhat duplicate sites for searching daily climate stats. Very good, though not official data. I have found some errors, especially in the snow depth reports. On the other hand I’ve found errors in official NCDC data too. Nobody’s perfect.

…For mountain locations:

http://aprfc.arh.noaa.gov/sd_all_sites.html  and  http://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/snotel/Alaska/alaska.html

These sites are good in part because you can easily find SWE (snow water equivalent) info, which, as I’ve said, is more important than the amount of snow. A little harder to use, but you can access mountain sites not found in common reports.

How is the snow in your community? Lots of snow but not on the list? Perhaps you could volunteer to be a cooperative weather observer, or at least a spotter. Check back to see how the snow race turns out and for other weather stories.

2 thoughts on “Not the last great Alaska snow race

  1. The Alaska Peninsula has been getting plenty of snow too. I checked Cold Bay and they are at 90% of seasonal average as of the end of February. Not good enough to be featured in this article, although you might note a couple worse performers on the spreadsheet. But several avalanches in nearby King Cove around the 1st of February show that there has been plenty of snow at least in the steep mountains that sit right above this fishing community near the end of the Alaska Peninsula. Check out the dramatic security camera videos of an avalanche slamming into the back of the King Cove AC store: http://www.alaskadispatch.com/article/video-what-happens-when-avalanche-slams-alaska-warehouse

  2. Thanks for the fascinating (and mind-boggling) statistics!

    I had a couple of thoughts about the surprising difference in average snow amounts between Adak and Annette. First, Adak is typically a bit colder throughout the winter, so more of the precipitation would fall as snow. Based on the 1971-2000 normals, it looks like Adak averages right around 31-32 F in January, whereas Annette averages around 35 F. Presumably Adak is colder (even though it is farther south) because it is more exposed to extremely cold Siberian and Arctic air coming down over the Bering Sea.

    The other difference I discovered is that the lapse rate is higher on average in Adak. This means that even with the same temperature at the surface, precipitation would be more likely to fall as snow at Adak, because it is (typically) colder aloft. I can envision, for example, some events when it is raining at 32-34 degrees in Annette (when warm air is streaming in aloft from the southwest), but in Adak it would more likely be snowing and accumulating at that temperature. I’m not sure if this would be a minor effect or a significant contributor to the difference in snow totals, but it’s interesting to consider!

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