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Christmas decoration covered by snow that the wind took up after the snow storm

Extreme weather stresses everyone who experiences it. This post covers one of the extreme weather situations – wet, windy snow storms – that occur in Central Alaska. It explains the weather situation and damage that it can cause and provides photo illustrations. Read why people fear wind more than 40 below the freezing point.

  1. Interior Alaska: Where Cold Air Comes From
  2. What Are the Wind Conditions in Interior Alaska?
  3. Why can You Find above Freezing Temperatures in Alaska in Winter?
  4. What is Needed to Improve Storm Emergency Management?
  5. Which Type of Storms Bring the most Snow in the Interior?
  6. Why are the Forecasts Hard to Make?
  7. Why do People in the Interior Fear Wind more than the Cold?
    • Fear is on Several Burners
    • Low Visibility
    • The Storm is the Extreme, not the Normal
  8. References

Important notice: Meteorological terms indicated with * are explained in the High Latitude Style Glossary. The glossary opens in a new tab for best reading experience.
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Interior Alaska: Where Cold Air Comes From

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 central Alaska 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.

#Alaska snow deposit from one Bering Sea snow storm
Demonstration of the depth of the snow after the storm on December 30, 2016. Before the storm, the driveway and entrance to the garage were cleared.


What Are the Wind Conditions in Interior Alaska?

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.


Why Can You Find above Freezing Temperatures in Alaska in Winter

*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 warming in winter permits wearing pantyhose. You are used to dress for the temperature, in this case, relatively warm with no to calm wind.


snow piled up on the grill
Snow piled up on the grill in front of the window



Which Type of Storms Bring the Most Snow in the Interior?

Storms from the Bering Sea are feared in fall/early winter. 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 early 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. Consequently, wind speed increases over the Interior.


snow depth on the deck after a Bering Sea storm
View thru the storm door on the snow deposited on the deck. For scale, see the old iron board on the deck loaded with snow.


Note that in the Interior, usual snow events have one or 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.


Mean monthly precipitation (blue) and temperature (red) at Fairbanks, AK
Monthly mean precipitation (blue bars) and mean air temperature (red curve) at Fairbanks, Alaska


When the trees fall into a power line, parts of the Interior may be without electricity due to snowstorm outages 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.

Another issue is the wind and its related chill. It may blow away the snow that covers your water pump and/or underground pipes to the septic tank. Then the wind chill can freeze the pipes. The septic system will flood the house the next time someone takes a shower, uses the dish washer or laundry machine. Yuck!


Why Are the Forecasts Hard to Make?

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. People start guerilla shopping.

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.

snow on the roof and deck
View onto the snow on the deck and roof from the second story


What Is Needed to Improve Storm Emergency Management?

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.


Why Do People in the Interior Fear Wind more than the Cold?

Well, the fear is experience, physics and technology related. 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. Furthermore, a wood-stove can only heat so far. Being without water means a lot of hassle.


#AlaskaLifestyle snow shoveling is involved and needs fitness
View out of the front door after shoveling the snow away after the storm


Fear Is on Several 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).

#Alaska snow blown in front of the garage door
View out of the garage door after the windy night after the snow storm. The wind had redistributed the snow and loaded a lot of debris from trees in front of our garage door. Compare with the photo showing the snow shovel. It means shoveling the snow from the same storm at least twice.


Low Visibility

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 the 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 in thermal stress. Note that in the Interior, people have their photo taken in swimwear at 40 below zero and allow their kids to sleep in a tent outside 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. When you live here, 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 had so much snow and wind in the Interior for a long time.


What weather situations do you find scary and why? Let me know, I am curious.

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Mölders, Nicole, 2019. Outdoor Universal Thermal Comfort Index Climatology for Alaska, Atmosphere and Climate Sciences, DOI: 10.4236/acs.2019.94036


Photos: N. Mölders

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