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Why Alaska's winter weather has been extreme but not abnormal

John PapineauNational Weather Service
Cordova snow storm, January 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Rochelle van den Broek
Vehicles on the Parks Highway near the Trunk Road overpass travel through a snow storm on Thursday, January 12.
Stephen Nowers photo
Clearing snow in Cordova.
Photo courtesy Linden O'Toole
Valdez snow storm, January 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Kate Herring
Crewmembers of the Coast Guard Cutter Sycamore and National Guardsmen clear compacted snow and ice from the roof of the grocery store as snow continues to fall in Cordova on Jan. 12.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. j.g. Carla Geyer
Coast Guard personnel from Valdez help clear several feet of snow from the roof of a building on Jan. 11. Record amounts of snow, coupled with a lack of snow removal equipment in Valdez, have shut down many public services in the community.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. j.g. Allie Ferko
Removing snow from a Cordova street by loading it into a melter.
Photo courtesy Linden O'Toole
A musk ox settles into recent snow at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage.
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center photo
A house in Cordova buried in the January 2012 snow storm.
Photo courtesy Linden O'Toole
Cordova snow storm, January 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Rochelle van den Broek
Snow piles up on the street-side of the Killer Whale Cafe in Cordova.
Photo by Lindsay Butters
Valdez snow storm, January 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Kate Herring
Snow blocks the back door of the Killer Whale Cafe in Cordova.
Photo by Lindsay Butters
Cordova snow storm, January 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Rochelle van den Broek
4th Street in Cordova after the January 2012 snowstorm.
Photo courtesy CordovaBuzz.com
Cordova snow storm, January 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Rochelle van den Broek
Cordova driveway.
Photo courtesy CordovaBuzz.com
Cordova snow storm, January 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Rochelle van den Broek
2nd Street in Cordova after the January 2012 storm.
Photo courtesy CordovaBuzz.com
Cordova snow storm, January 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Rochelle van den Broek
Tunnel to a home's front door in Cordova after the January 2012 snow storm.
Photo courtesy CordovaBuzz.com
Snow falls near Palmer, Alaska, during a January snow storm.
Stephen Nowers photo
Cordova snow storm, January 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Rochelle van den Broek
Cars the Cordova airport.
Photo courtesy CordovaBuzz.com
Cordova snow storm, January 6.
Photo courtesy Rochelle van den Broek
Clearing snow from tanks in Cordova.
Photo courtesy the Cordova Times
The Cordova Wireless building was snowed in after a snowstorm Jan. 6, 2012.
David Little photo
View from the 5-Mile Loop Road at base of the avalanche.
Photo courtesy the Cordova Times
A car in Valdez snowed in by a storm on Jan. 6, 2012.
Debbi Marsden photo
Damage to the Fisherman's Camp warehouse due to the snow storm.
Photo courtesy the Cordova Times
A Front-end loader clears Main Street in Cordova on Jan. 6, 2012
David Little photo
The Fisherman's Camp warehouse in Cordova.
Photo courtesy the Cordova Times
A house is snowed in in Valdez following a snowstorm Jan. 6, 2012,
Photo courtesy Carole Townsend Derifield

Snow, wind and rain has been the rule so far this winter across much of Southcentral Alaska. Anchorage residents have been treated to generous snowfall, with plenty of strong winds along the western slopes of the Chugach. North Gulf of Alaska coast residents have been contending with copious snowfall since early December.  

With so much active weather over the past several months, many people wonder what’s going on. 

A look at the weather across the North Pacific and Gulf of Alaska this winter indicates that November was cold over most of the region as a slight eastward shift in the storm track allowed cooler arctic air to press farther south. Numerous storms tracked through the northern Gulf, which produced above-normal snowfall from Cook Inlet east. In December, most storms tracked through the central Bering and moved up the west coast. This occurred as a persistent high-pressure ridge dominated the eastern Gulf and western Canada. 

This pattern generated a strong pressure field along the northern Gulf and, consequently, windstorms along the slopes of the western Chugach Mountains. These systems carried moisture from the North Pacific. During the last week of December, the storm track shifted as the high pressure over the Gulf and Western Canada moved east. This allowed storms to move back into the Gulf, which they’ve done with a vengeance.

There only were a few days between Dec. 22 and Jan. 12 without snow or rain along the North Gulf of Alaska coast.

A particularly stormy winter, so far

Are these normal weather patterns? Typically, patterns across Alaska persist for 10 to 15 days and before switching. A warm period of clouds, snow or rain might switch to a dry, cool period (we’re heading into one). Although the National Weather Service does not keep tabs on the number of storms that move through the region, December through early January was a stormy stretch, with the storms lingering longer than normal. Nevertheless, this is not what we would consider abnormal or extreme weather for this part of the world.

Let’s look at other snowy winters in Southcentral Alaska for comparison. In recent decades, it was snowy in Valdez during the winters of 1989-1990, 1991-1992, and 1994-1995. This latter winter was also very snowy in Anchorage (third snowiest).  

The 1989-1990 weather pattern was similar this winter, while both 1991-1992 and 1994-1995 were subtly different. It’s important to keep in mind that different weather patterns can produce similar weather.  

This results from the rich nature of weather; for much of the year, it’s in flux. How does this fit in with the 10-15 day persistent patterns noted above?   

The only time the weather pattern is the same day-to-day is during high-pressure periods. Otherwise storms regularly move into the eastern Bering or Gulf -- and then onshore. In late December and early January, there were short breaks between storms that otherwise made for a three-week period of continuous storms.

(Persistent) natural variability

Returning to our original question, is this winter’s weather across Southcentral abnormal? There is no getting around the fact that the storm track has been persistent -- but not abnormal. Rather, it's well within the range of what meteorologists call natural variability. What's that? Think of it as the broad spectrum of weather patterns that occur over a period of time. A simplistic example in the short-term is the difference between the high and low daily temperatures. The temperature does not stay the same because of various factors  -- heating by the sun, sea breezes, cloud cover, etc. The same factors, plus the temperature of North Pacific surface water, generate weather across the region.

What impact is our current La Niña having? La Niña’s are defined as cooler-than-normal water in the central and eastern Tropical Pacific. This can produce large impacts over much of the Pacific basin. Typically, La Niñas favor a storm track that brings many storms into the Pacific Northwest -- which has not occurred so far this winter. Last winter was also a La Niña winter, and the Pacific Northwest’s rain and snow was normal, with considerable rain and snow moving down into the Sierra Mountains.

For Alaska there is no dominant La Niña pattern -- some are warm, some are cool, some are wet and others dry. It’s pretty much hit and miss. If we look back at some of the big snow years across Southcentral, two of the three were during El Niños.

Historically La Niña’s have produced some cooler temperatures in Anchorage, but for snowfall it tends to work out to about normal. Some winters, like 2007-2008 were snowy (93.2"). Others, like 1984-1985, were drier (53.5").

Valdez snowfall during La Niña winters (nine all together with data) indicate snowfall is typically about 15 percent below normal. However there were several substantial snowfalls in La Niña winters: 1975-1976 produced 351 inches and the winter of 1984-1985 total 338 inches. The current seasonal snowfall total of 322 inches in Valdez is certainly substantial, but who knows if it will continue? A new snowfall record would warrant a fresh look.

Surprise: Alaska weather simply more interesting

A number of weather events this winter have caught the attention of the national media, including the powerful, early November storm that moved through the northern Bering and the deep snowpack along the North Gulf coast. 

Why? One possibility is the weather in the continental U.S. has been pretty benign so far, with well below normal snowpack in the mountain ranges of the west due to the big ridge of high pressure noted above. As a result, the media is picking up on Alaska weather because it is more interesting than the weather in the Lower 48. Secondly, weather news has become big business in the age of round-the-clock media on cable TV and the Internet. That prompts a thirst for weather news, even if it’s not much of a story beyond human interest.

In conclusion, Southcentral has been buffeted by numerous storms since early November. Valdez, for example, set a new December snowfall total, which is second on the list of all-time snowiest months.

There is however nothing abnormal with these patterns beyond their persistence. If the recent weather continues through the spring, there would be grounds for some serious inquiry into why a seasonal pattern was locked in one particular phase. But if the national media wants to hype Alaska weather, let them. Chalk it up to some free advertising for the tourist industry.

John Papineau, Ph.D is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Anchorage whose main interest is the study of wind regimes and various climate issues. Contact Papineau at john.papineau(at)noaa.gov.

Two of Papineau's collegues, Dave Stricklan and Arlene Lundsford, contributed to this report. Papineau also thanks all the cooperative weather observers who gather data from across the state.