Winter that isn’t — Record-breaking warming period persists, chilling winter activities

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Depending on your perspective, the recent stretch of April-in-January weather in Alaska is a dark cloud or a silver lining. Dog mushers, skiers, ice fishermen and snowmachiners are missing out on their activities, while those not fond of snow and cold are enjoying the midwinter reprieve. Side roads are slick with ice from melting and refreezing snow, but shoveling hasn’t been required for a while. There have been reports of bears finding their winter naps disrupted, but moose, at least, are enjoying easy travel and a bounty of browse.

On whichever side one falls, both can agree to one thing — January has been the weird winter that wasn’t.

“If it weren’t for the low sun angle you’d think it was late April,” said Dave Snider, TV Desk lead meteorologist with the Anchorage National Weather Service Forecast Office in a forecast recording Jan. 24.

Using Anchorage as an example, the average high temperature usually stops hitting 40 degrees after Nov. 17 and doesn’t reach 40 again until April 4. The average low remains below 32 degrees after Nov. 12 and stays that way until April 22. Not so this January, which has become the warmest period from Jan. 1 to Jan. 23 on record since 1985. According to the NWS, Monday temperatures busted records across the state — Seward hit 61 degrees (previous record was 55 degrees in 2005), Homer reached 57 degrees (51 in 1994), Alyeska Resort in Girdwood also recorded 57 degrees (50 in 1995), Denali National Park hit 52 (51 in 1961), Nome reached 51 (46 in 1942), Talkeetna spiked at 47 (46 in 2004) and Soldotna recorded 50 degrees (40 in 1972). It was 7 degrees in Barrow on Monday, and minus 4 in Green Bay, Wis.

While the state has seen some high precipitation amounts — particularly in Southeast and Valdez, it’s mostly been coming down as rain. Snowpack has been rapidly decreasing across the state with as much as 2 feet of snow melting away in the last week in some parts of Prince William Sound and the Kenai Peninsula, according to the NWS.

Don’t expect that to change on the peninsula in the next week, with the NWS forecasting chances of rain or mixed rain and snow and continued above-freezing temperatures.

While Alaska has fast-forwarded to spring this month it seems to have exported winter weather to the Lower 48, with snowstorms and severe cold plaguing the Midwest on down to the Gulf Coast.

This weather pattern is called an Arctic Oscillation. The fast-moving winds of the jet stream steer the weather we experience at the surface, Snider said.

“The south-to-north orientation that flow, at the upper levels of the atmosphere, latches onto some tropical moisture and heat across the Pacific and produces the weather we’ve experienced,” he said.

Cooler air from the north is being ferried on down south. A ridge of high pressure extending from the western Lower 48 up through British Columbia and Alaska is holding the inverted temperatures in place.

“Convection, which is upward-moving air, has been going full tilt across the tropical Pacific Ocean, so much so that the area involved would cover twice the size of the Lower 48 United States. That’s the source of the moisture making it to Alaska. And if that continues, the ridge of high pressure over Alaska could remain intact,” Snider said.

The latest forecast model predicts that the high-pressure ridge will most likely hold into February, although Snider said the NWS has low confidence in that model at this time. The silver lining for winter enthusiasts in Alaska is the possibility that as this North America high-pressure ridge breaks down the North Pacific jet stream could shift to the west.

“Which could lead to more of a northerly flow across Alaska. That means it’s going to get colder, more like late January or early February-type weather,” Snider said.

Mush for dogs and snowmachiners

At this point, it’s going to take a decent dump of snow along with colder temperatures to get winter on the peninsula back to normal and allow usual midwinter recreation to resume.

On Friday, directors of the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race announced the cancellation of this year’s race. The 30th T200 was scheduled to begin Feb. 1, but conditions in the hills just weren’t cooperating, said Tami Murray, race director.

“The main problem is the open water. All the rivers are open — Deep Creek, the Anchor — and we have to cross those. And then the swamps are full of water, which is not huge but enough to make it where we need to reroute it and we just can’t find a way around enough of the water. And then daily the snow is just disappearing. It’s not safe for everybody,” Murray said. “We have an alternate trail but we still didn’t feel comfortable putting on the race with what we found and the forecast we we’re seeing.”

They could have waited until a few days before the start to make the call, but wanted to give entrants as much advance notice as possible. Entry fees will be refunded.

“Trainingwise they need to go somewhere where they can find some snow,” Murray said.

This year’s race had a full field of 40 mushers with an additional wait list, and a $50,000 purse.

“We had a really good purse so a lot of people were counting on the income for their kennels, so it’s a tough break for a lot of people,” Murray said.

The T200 board was expected to meet Monday to discuss the possibility of moving the race to the end of March, if there’s enough snow and if enough water refreezes by then.

“But if we don’t do it, definitely, we’ll just carry on for next year. Our sponsors are behind us and they’re going to continue to support us so we’re in good shape there, and the volunteers will always come out,” Murray said.

Rick Northey, president of the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers, which maintains trails in the hills used by snowmachiners and mushers, is remaining optimistic.

“She’s gonna cool off and we’ll get a storm or two come through and we’ll be right back to having a little winter fun,” he said Monday.

Northey said that Cabin Hoppers trail crews have already put in about 80 hours of work on the trails.

“And the trails we did get groomed are holding up as far as the base — we had a really good base there, it’s pretty frozen,” he said. “Getting the infrastructure down like we did really helped out because that leveled all the holes out. As soon as it cools off and we get 5, 6 inches of snow we’ll be right back at it.”

In the meantime, he cautions people to be careful if they do venture out on the trails. Side roads getting to trailheads have been particularly slick, though the ice is rapidly melting away to bare gravel. Icy spots and even patches of grass are expanding in the hills as the freeze-thaw cycle continues. And riders should use extreme caution at water crossings.

“There are a lot of springs and holes and creek crossings and areas that have a lot of water in them. When we do get back (to grooming) the trails, or if they do venture out (before then), really be cautious of openings and creek crossings. Those holes can open up and swallow a machine,” Northey said.

But he’s hopeful annual events will still continue, such as the Way Out Women snowmachine ride set for Feb. 22.

“We just might be moving them further toward spring. We’re just adapting to that,” he said.

Snowmachine drag races are still happening as planned at Freddie’s Roadhouse on Oilwell Road in Ninilchik, though conditions for Saturday’s event were decidedly not according to plan.

“It was kind of slick and a lot of mud involved. But you know Alaskans are pretty good about that stuff, they made do with what they had and everybody had fun. It was still some real diehard folks out there in T-shirts watching the snowmachine drags. It looked like a typical April 15th day out there,” Northey said.

Businesses serving snowmachines, though, aren’t as easily adaptable to the warm weather. Northey said that roadhouses and lodges serving the backcountry, snowmachine sales and rental operations and the like are seeing a lack of customers.

“There’s a lot of economic downturns when you get a year like this, it really affects a lot of people’s jobs. It’s like a commercial fisherman, there’s only a part of the year where they can make that money, so this is really hurting them,” Northey said. “So I’m sad that I can’t be out there on my snowmachine, but that’s just an inconvenience. Those vendors and people that support (snowmachining), they’re really taking a hit, and the people who work for them, it’s a trickle-down effect. It is a very large economic boost (for the community) in the winter months.”

Elsewhere on the peninsula, the U.S. Forest Service has closed several areas of the Chugach National Forest to snowmachining. The Primrose Trail, Turnagain Pass motorized area, Twentymile River drainage, Placer River drainage, and Lost Lake Trail are now closed to motorized use due to inadequate snow cover.

And throughout the mountains, the Chugach National Forecast Avalanche Information Center is continuing to warn of level-four high avalanche risk both above and below tree line, at all elevations and aspects. Travel in avalanche terrain, including run-out zones, by either snowmachiners or backcountry skiers and snowboarders is not recommended.

As of Monday, snowmachining was still allowed in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, though Steve Miller, refuge deputy manager, said that might change if the weather doesn’t.

“The next seven days don’t look good but we’ll just keep looking at the forecast. If we see some snow coming up before long we’ll maintain (snowmachine access), but if we keep losing 1 to 4 inches of snow a week we’ll have to re-evaluate that at some point,” Miller said.

Current snow conditions are limiting to snowmachines anyway, even without enacting a ban. Some spots on the refuge are down to bare ground, Miller said. There’s open water in the bigger lakes, rivers and larger streams, and overflow on smaller lakes and streams. And areas with snow are getting icy and lacking loose snow to cool the machines.

That’s been hampering refuge crews, as well.

“It’s definitely impacting mobility. Right now our planes are on wheel skis and we can’t land where we want to land because there’s a lot of overflow on lakes. We’ve curtailed snowmachining just because of how hard it is on the machines,” Miller said.

Usually in January crews would be working on maintenance projects and hauling materials into the backcountry to prepare for spring and summer work.

“That has been totally shut down because it’s very hard on the snowmachines just by itself, and with a sled it’s even harder. We need some deeper snow conditions to do that so our cabin maintenance is definitely lacking this winter, just because we can’t physically get out there and maintain the cabins,” Miller said.

Anyone who rented a public-use cabin on the refuge during this January warm period is eligible to get a refund on the rental fee, since travel to the cabins has been so difficult. New cabin rentals are closed through Feb. 2. But cabins along Skilak Lake Loop Road, at least, should be a little easier to get to these days, as the road is nearly clear of ice and the Refuge recently bladed the side roads off the main road.

Fishing for safe ice

Fishing access is a mixed bag in this weather. The upper Kenai River is ice free and good for floating or bank fishing. Ice fishing, however, is more of a challenge. Larger lakes, like Skilak, are open. Many smaller lakes that still have enough ice to support travel are covered with overflow.

“We still have good lake ice thickness that’s underneath the water, but the overflow on top pretty much makes ice fishing impossible. But there’s still a couple folks out there doing it,” said Miller, with the refuge.

Trustworthy Hardware’s annual ice fishing derby is set to begin Saturday, and a store representative said Monday that that’s still the plan. Organizers have been checking area lakes and plan to put up signs warning about overflow, but don’t think ice thickness for people just walking on lakes is a problem.

In Kenai last month, ice thickness posed a dramatic problem for a city plow truck that broke through the ice Dec. 17 on Daubenspeck Pond on Marathon Road.

“That happened to be me,” said Bob Frates, Kenai Parks and Recreation director. “I will never forget that date.”

Parks and Rec usually plows the pond for skating in the winter, but after the plow took a dive workers strung orange fencing around the shoreline and posted signs warning caution about thin ice.

“It is absolutely not safe, no,” Frates said.

Parks and Rec had been monitoring the ice after freezeup in preparation of clearing snow off the surface of the pond.

“We’d been watching it pretty closely for a few weeks and taking ice measurements, and we hit 13 inches of ice and we thought that we’re good to go,” Frates said.

He got about 25 feet out onto the lake when the ice gave way and the truck plunged through.

“In less than probably 30 seconds the truck was completely submerged,” he said.

Frates got out through the driver’s window, pulled himself up onto the ice, crawled about 10 feet then walked the rest of the way to shore. Though he’d alerted people as to his whereabouts that day, no one was with him and he didn’t have a working phone with which to call for help. He walked to Walmart to call from there. Frates said the moral of his submerging is to take ice travel seriously and be prepared for the worst.

“Not that anyone thinks that that’s going to happen to you, but mentally I was kind of prepared. I had my windows rolled down and seatbelt off and was kind of looking and listening and monitoring and paying attention. Mentally I knew that if I ran into a jam and the truck was going in I just kind of knew what I needed to do. That mental preparation, I guess, is the message that we all should take a lesson from. As a result of that I didn’t panic. If I wouldn’t have been mentally prepared and didn’t have a plan then you panic, and then you’re in a whole lot of trouble,” he said.

Frates said he’s familiar with ice travel, through maintaining the pond, researching and monitoring ice conditions, ice fishing and growing up in Alaska.

“For me, personally, the number-one rule really is there’s not any 100 percent safe ice. It just doesn’t exist,” he said.

Thirteen inches should be enough to support a truck, but Frates thinks what might have happened is as the water surface froze, the abnormally high water table this fall dropped concurrently.

“I think what happened is the water level dropped out from underneath it and created kind of a voided pocket of air there and it gave way,” he said.

It’s not enough to just drill a test hole and rely on ice thickness, alone, Frates said. It’s also important to read the physical characteristics of the ice, noting cracks and fractures, and to be aware of climactic influences, such as snow cover, wind influence and any flowing water that could weaken ice integrity.

“We went maybe two weeks ago and took ice measurements. I think we had 15 inches of ice, but if you start analyzing that ice layer about half of that 15 inches was rotten ice where you lose that load capacity. It probably cuts everything in half as far as load capacity,” Frates said.

Along with drilling and examining ice, Frates recommends anyone traveling upon it be prepared with a floatation device, a cellphone protected from a possible dunking, clothing that won’t restrict movement if the wearer is submerged and a pick or something else with which to pull oneself out of the water and onto the ice.

The truck was pulled out the next day, but the engine was destroyed. The Kenai City Council will be asked to approve the purchase a replacement plow truck for about $18,000. Ice for skating still is available at the Kenai Multi-Purpose Facility, though the warm weather increases the cost of maintaining the refrigeration at the covered but open-air rink, Frates said.

Skiing on ice

Skiers, as well, are finding shrinking opportunity. At the Nordic ski trails at the Kenai Golf Course, grooming has been curtailed until there’s more snow.

“We’ve about exhausted all of our resources and it’s done for the time being,” Frates said. “We just can’t do it, not until the weather changes and we get more snow.”

The course remains open, however, and might still offer decent skiing, depending on the fluctuating temperature and moisture content of the snow. Frates suggests trying the east end of the course.

At Tsalteshi Trails behind Skyview High School in Soldotna, Bill Holt, head of trail maintenance, was able to groom a few trails Monday — the Moose and Wolf loops near the school trailhead, and the Wolverine and Porcupine loops off the Kalifornsky Beach Road trailhead.

But it’s getting increasingly difficult to keep the trails skiable, with bare spots forming on the Moose and Wolf. A moat has formed at the far end of the football field, cutting off easy access to the Rabbit, Squirrel and Owl loops that start from there. And the unshaded soccer field behind Skyview is just about shot for supporting the weight of a snowmachine and grooming equipment.

“On the trails it’s actually pretty solid. There’s about 2 inches of snow on the trails and it’s that kind of solid ice block. It’s gotten to the point now where I don’t punch through it much, I just scrape up the top,” Holt said.

“I can probably fix one trail at a time and make it skiable for a few hours, but it’s freezing from below. The ground’s cold and so if it melts on the surface it just turns into a glaze ice surface on the top,” he said.

Tsalteshi’s youth ski program meets Tuesdays, Thursdays and some Saturdays through early March, but might end up being put on hold as conditions deteriorate. The annual community She Can Ski event, scheduled for Sunday, might also be postponed. The Tsalteshi Trails Association Board is expected to make those decisions this week. Visit www.tsalteshi.org or Tsalteshi Trails on Facebook for more information.

Even when evenings cool enough to where Holt can groom, the result is fast, icy skiing, not ideal for the youth program or the community event.

“I think it’s not good for a beginning skier. It’d be good if you get somebody that really likes going fast and doesn’t mind falling and scraping their skin off a bit,” Holt said.

Tsalteshi is the only game in town — any town on the peninsula, at this point — for holding school ski meets, so Holt is trying to at least keep a few loops skiable for the time being.

“If you work on it while it’s cooling off you can rough it up enough so the corduroy will set into it and then it holds up actually pretty well,” he said. “I think if it started freezing at least at night pretty well to where I could get on it without having to get up at 3 in the morning to do it, I think we could probably start getting it in shape, but it just deteriorates pretty quickly during the day,” Holt said.

Bears, plants wake up

It isn’t just humans thrown off by the weird weather. Plants and wildlife are affected, as well. Jeff Selinger, area wildlife management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said that he heard two reports Monday of fresh bear tracks — one in Cooper Landing, species unknown, and one in Ninilchik, thought to be a brown bear.

“It would surprise me if there weren’t a few poking around. Over in Seward it was in the mid- to upper 50s this morning, and they don’t have any snow over there,” Selinger said.

A number of factors can induce a bear to rouse early from its winter den, such as the condition of the bear when it goes into its den, the selection of the den site and whether the bear is a sow or boar — as cubs are typically born in January and a sow is unlikely to leave its den with vulnerable newborns to look after. Water draining into the den or snow eroding to the point where sunlight can penetrate the entrance can further rouse a bear.

“And den site disturbance can also play a role, whether it’s snowmachines buzzing over a den hole, or earthquakes, or seismic work can set off rumbles that disturb a den,” Selinger said. “So it’s a whole host of things that can dictate when a bear comes out. Probably the most critical is the condition of the bear. If they’re not in very good condition and some of those other things are met they may pop out and look for something to eat.”

It’s not unusual for a bear to emerge and den up again, but if their previous den is compromised they might have difficulty creating another, since the ground is frozen and difficult for a bear to dig.

“So they’re going to need to use an existing den they already know of or a natural den site,” (like a rock or tree branch overhang), he said.

It’s a good reminder to residents to be bear aware, both in the woods and around their homes, making sure to minimize garbage, pet food left outside and other bear attractants. It’s particularly important to not leave garbage unsecured, Selinger said, as moose can get into it in the winter.

“A lot of times they will ingest plastic from the plastic bags the garbage is in, and then that will clog their digestive track and they die. It gets bad enough where moose have had to be (killed) because they’re defending a Dumpster and charging people,” Selinger said.

With the warm weather, though, moose should be finding easier-than-usual natural foraging for this time of year. The melting snow is uncovering greater access to moose browse. And the lack of snow makes for easy moose traveling.

“But what happens in an average season is (what they’re eating now) becomes available later in winter/early spring and that holds them over to greenup, and they’re utilizing that right now. They’re eating what they normally would be eating in late March, early April. There’s a balance there. I don’t think we would be able to detect which is better, if they get a little bit more now, or a little bit more later. It’s just something else to add to the equation,” Selinger said.

Moose might like the effects of the warmth, but probably aren’t enjoying the temperatures.

“It isn’t costing the moose much energy to move around. That being said, with these warm temps and their heavy winter coat moose can overheat once the temperature gets above zero. So it might be impeding them moving around during the day somewhat just because of the temperatures we’re experiencing,” he said.

That means moose-vehicle collisions are still a high danger, with moose more likely to travel at night when it’s difficult for motorists to see them, especially with the current lack of snow.

“If you see a moose walking across a white background, it does stick out more than it does now,” Selinger said.

Roads clearing of ice and snow make for better stopping conditions, but that melting can mean water spraying on windshields and obscuring vision, too.

“So it all depends. When we get that spray and everything on the windshield that can definitely play into it, but I don’t think as many moose are concentrated on the roads as they would be in a heavier snow year,” he said.

Overall, moose are probably finding this January to be a bit of a boost, but that doesn’t mean they’re out of the figurative woods.

“It’s still a long way to go and the late-season storms are the ones that really get moose,” Selinger said. “Even with conditions like this moose are living on a submaintenance diet. They don’t consume enough food to put on weight. Throughout the winter they’re on a downhill trajectory as far as taking in enough nutrients to sustain themselves. What this does is gives them a break where they’re still losing condition but at a much lower rate than they would in a normal winter.”

Plants are acting like it’s spring, too, with grass poking up in bare spots in the snow and willow trees bearing new buds.

“It’s quite amazing. I’m not hauling out the lawnmower, however,” said Marion Nelson, president of the Central Peninsula Garden Club.

Most established perennials in people’s yards are likely hardy enough to withstand the faux spring and likely return to winter weather, but more-delicate plants might not be, she said.

“They’ll probably get frozen again, so then what do they do? They started to act like spring, they started some kind of process to grow or rejuvenate themselves for summer growing and then they get smacked with freezing temperatures again, so it’s obviously disrupting,” Nelson said.

She imagines that fruiting plants, such as berry bushes and fruit trees growers might have in high tunnels, could be particularly vulnerable to the freeze to come.

“It they start putting out buds that would set fruit, they stand to lose a whole season of production if the plants can’t work it out, and that’s entirely possible,” she said. “Those buds that would become fruit, they’re very disrupted and they can’t make that up in a few months — ‘Oh, OK, we’ll go to sleep again a third of the way through our growth cycle and then we’ll start over again and we’ll make fruit.’ It just doesn’t work that way, it’s a one-shot deal.”

That is unless usual winter weather doesn’t return this year. Nelson has lived here since 1963 and said she has never seen a warming period this extreme.

“While we’ve had January thaws that have produced big puddles in the middle of Kenai, for instance, we’ve never had a prolonged situation like this where it’s clear and sunny and warm. In January? Not happening. Usually there’s some melt but then you know you’re just going to pay for it with 20 below and a dump of snow, but now I don’t know.”

Selinger’s advice is to take it as it comes, whether you like the warmth or mourn the snow.

“There’s a lot of interesting little things with weather like this. With most of it there’s some good to be seen and there’s some bad maybe on the horizon,” Selinger said. “The silver lining is we can enjoy it — well, unless you want to go ski, or snowmachine or dog mush. I’m sure we’ll get some more winter before too long.”

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