In the Interior, cold air is produced
The Interior of Alaska has the high often glacier covered mountains of the Brooks and Alaska Ranges to the North and South, respectively, the Ogilvie Mountains to the East, and the relatively low Nulato Hills to the West. Recall that Alaska has the size of Europe from the Ural to Spain, and the Interior has dry continental climate. The Canadian High often extends into the Interior in winter making the Interior an air mass source region. Cold dry air is produced in the Interior because of the negative radiation balance. This means in clear winter nights the Interior looses more heat to space than it gains during the day. Consequently, the near-surface air gets colder and colder over time until a new air mass moves in.
In the Interior, winds are calm, on average
Under high pressure conditions, winds are calm in the Interior. Actually, the Interior’s windiest month is June with an average wind speed of a bit more than 3 m/s in Fairbanks, for instance. Thus, in the Interior, people consider no wind and cold as one set of their normal winter conditions.
Chinook can lead to above freezing temperatures even in winter
The high mountain ranges to the south and north are a tough barrier for any storm system. When a system actually passes them, the Interior gets Chinook (Föhn) conditions, i.e. air temperature rises, sometimes even above the freezing point even in January, the coldest month on average. When the storm even approached from far south, we speak of the pineapple express. And yes, having a Chinook in winter that permits going bare legs is nothing to worry about. You are used to dress for the temperature, in this case, relatively warm with no to calm wind.
Snow storms from the Bering Sea are scary
The weather that scares the heck out of the people in the Interior is a storm entering from the Bering Sea in fall and/or winter. The Nulato Hills are too flat to be an important weather barrier. When the sea-ice has not yet extended far south in the Bering Sea, the storm is loaded with snow from uptake of moisture over the water. Moreover, the open water is much warmer than the air of the storm. Thus, the storm takes up a lot of energy over the open areas of the Bering Sea. As the storm deepens, the pressure difference between the approaching storm and the Canadian High increases. Thus, wind speed increases over the Interior.
Note that in the Interior, usual snow events have one a two inches. However, those snow storm moving in from the Bering Sea dump huge amounts of snow in the Interior. The snow deposits onto trees. Young trees bend down. Old trees may break under the load. Those storms often come with high wind speeds after the snow was dumped.
When the trees fall into a power line, parts of the Interior may be without electricity for days. Due to the unusual high snow, and the short daylight hours it takes rescue and repair crews time to locate where the damage occurred and to get out there to fix the problem.
Too few observations make bad things even worse
Due to the fact that there are barely any radiosonde stations, only a few surface meteorological stations and only one weather radar in the Interior, forecasts are tricky. The storm that passed Fairbanks Thursday to Friday night, for instance, was first forecasted for Wednesday to Thursday night. Does the 24 hours offset matter? Not really for the inhabitants of the Interior. On the contrary, the delay gives them extra time for stocking up on groceries, batteries and water. The bad thing, however, is that people expect the storm to be late, which can be dangerous when they get caught outside in the woods by the storm somewhere in the middle of nowhere without appropriate protection.
What is needed to improve the situation
For search and rescue, aviation, and emergency management, the accuracy of a storm forecast does matter a lot. Therefore, stakeholders keep tuned in on every update there is. They need to know exactly where the most of the snow load will be dumped. Aviation needs to know whether bush pilots may be able to fly, and/or pass a pass between mountains to get into a valley, etc. Emergency management needs to have their crews close by the area for which the most damage is expected, but in safety. Only then, the crews can immediately start repairing power lines etc. once the storm left the damaged area.
The fear is experience, physics and technology related
Now why do people in the Interior fear wind more than the cold? Well, for starters being without electricity for several days is not fun. It means that your furnace and water pump don’t work. Even when you have a full water tank, you need electricity to pump the water and a wood-stove can only heat so far. Being without water means a lot of hassle.
Fear is on several other burners
Kids fear the noise that the wind makes when it hauls around the houses. The wind takes up loose snow and dumps it somewhere else. Thus, you will have to clean out your driveway several times removing snow dumped by the same storm (compare photo with snow shovel and photo below).
Visibility goes often below 50 yards (46 m) while it snows or when the snow is taken up and blown by the wind. Thus, roads are hard to recognize and to navigate during these situations. Since the snow depth is unusually high, moose walk where it is taking them less energy, i.e. often on the roads. Thus, there may be a moose or two or three in the middle of the road when you drive around the next curve.
The storm is the extreme, not normal
Furthermore, people in the Interior are not used to wind and hence wind chill. Dressing like usual for the temperature and moisture conditions out there will leave you cold. In the Interior, people allow their kids to sleep in a tent outside at 40 below zero to become an Eagle Scout. However, they wouldn’t allow their kids to go cross-country skiing on a 28F (-2.2oC) day with winds of 15 m/s on average. In the Interior, you know how to deal with cold, dry weather, but windy, and wet weather is rare. Thus, experience to handle it is low. We hadn’t so much snow and wind in the Interior for a long time.
What weather situations do you find scary and why? Let me know by email, I am curious.
Focus Alaska is a series on Alaska lifestyle including insider travel tips, dressing, events, story telling, and all kinds of things that are different in Alaska than in mid-latitudes.
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Photos: N. Mölders
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