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Fairbanks melting season brings a lot of hazards. Learn why snow height already decreases at temperatures below the freezing point. Read what happens in Fairbanks when finally the daytime temperatures exceed the freezing point.

Contents
  1. Snow in Interior Alaska and Its Impacts
  2. Weather Differs from Climatology
  3. How Does Snow Height Drecrease without Melting?
  4. Snow Metamorphism Prior to Onset of Snow Melt
  5. Meltwater Clogs the Drainage Systems
  6. Rubber Boots Are A Must-have
  7. The Snow Metamorphism and the Dirt
  8. References

 

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Snow in Interior Alaska and Its Impacts

The snow often leads to closure of the Steese Highway at Eagle Summit for some time in winter. As a result, people living north of this point loose their road access to Fairbanks. Consequently, they depended on subsidence lifestyle, what they have in storage, and supply flown in by small aircraft landing on  skids.

 

snow pile at a driveway in College, Alaska on March 19, 2017
Photo of the snow pile that the snow plow created at our driveway entrance. The solar lamp is barely visible

 

At the beginning of the meltseason, snow piles up man-high along the roads and streets; despite the Department of Transportation hauls snow in trucks to places outside of the city limits after each winter snowfall.

 

 

Weather Differs from Climatology

The normal annual snowfall for the Fairbanks North Star Borough amounts 61.6 inches (156.464 cm). However, in some years, there can be much more (e.g., winters 2016/17, 2020/21, 2021/22) or much less snowfall!

 

March 1-19, 2017 weather in Fairbanks melting season
Daily mean wind speed, mean temperature (Tmean), minimum (Tmin) and maximum (Tmax) temperature, mean relative humidity (RHmean), minimum (RHmin) and maximum (RHmax) relative humidity as observed in Fairbanks from March 1 to 19, 2017. Left panel metric units, right panel English units.

 

 

Snow Vanishes Visibly in March without Snowmelt

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

 

Typically, March is the driest month the Interior with respect to precipitation (see diagram above) and cloudiness. Therefore, March provides the best chances to watch the aurora.

Despite temperature rarely go above the freezing point, snowheight decreases due to snow metamorphism.

 

How Does Snow Height Drecrease without Melting?

Some of the decrease in height is related to settling due to gravity. Furthermore, the low relative humidity leads to sublimation of snow. In addition, water-vapor transfer occurs within the snow-pack because the saturation-vapor pressure over concave surfaces is less than over convex surfaces. As a result, the sharp edges of snowflakes sublimate at vapor-pressure values that still allow water-vapor to deposit on concave surfaces.

 

metamorphed snow during the Fairbanks melting season
Snow that has undergone some snow metamorphism to form larger, less complex crystals

 

Consequently, dendrite-like crystals morph into hexagonal plates, and eventually, at the end of the snow season,  ice spheres of about two mm (~0.08 inches) in diameter (see photo above). During this process, the snow density increases, while snow volume and depth decrease. Recall, density is mass per volume.

 

Meltwater Clogs the Drainage Systems

Once temperatures exceed the freezing point during daytime, snow-melt sets on. However, because the drainage system is still at temperature below the freezing point, the melt-water freezes upon entering. Consequently, the drainage system clogs up, and huge puddles form all over town. Of course, gutters have the same fate. Water drops from the roofs, sometimes building long icicles.

 

icicles formed during the Fairbanks melting season
Icicles during the Fairbanks melting season

 

Streets and driveways turn into a mix of snow and water and/or great puddles (see video). Unpaved roads turn into mud.

 

 

At night, temperatures go below freezing, and water freezes. Areas may turn into black ice causing slipping hazard. Recall I broke my arm, and had to deal with that injury the Alaskan way during lockdown.

 

Rubber Boots Are A Must-have

Because of all the water, rubber boots are in order. However, rubber conducts heat very easily. Therefore, you loose body heat fast, i.e.,  your feet get cold in no time. Therefore, people wear double socks in their rubber boots, but light clothes.

Alaskans who can afford it have It Legacy Xtratuf. These boots are insulated.  These boots are so It that brides even take their Xtratuf to their outdoor weddings. Unfortunately, these boots have no high heels. Therefore, they are not my statement heels shoes for breakup.

 

 

Snow Metamorphism and the Dirt

Along the streets, the snow piles turn gray or even black from dirt and gravel that remain in the snowpack when the water runs away.

 

snowpack in the Fairbanks melting season on the side of the street
Snowpack on the side on a residential street. Those on main streets turn entirely black during snowmelt.

 

The melting season brings out not only gravel (used to roughen the roads during winter) or seeds and needles that fell off the trees. It also brings out all the lost mittens, scarves, candy wraps, plastic shopping bags, masks, trash bags fallen off from pickup trucks, and whatever people disrespectfully threw away during winter.

 

Alaska ducks searching for food
Mallards searching for seeds in the mix of snow and water

 

More on Alaska’s snow and rain and Alaska permafrost at the links.

Did you know this about the Fairbanks melting season? Click To Tweet

 

References

Dingman, S.L. (2021) Physical Hydrology. 3rd edition. Prentice Hall.

Fröhlich,K., Mölders, N. (2002) Investigations on the impact of explicitly predicted snow metamorphism on the microclimate simulated by a meso-β/γ-scale non-hydrostatic model. Atmospheric Research, 62, 71-109, doi:10.1016/S0169-8095(2)900005-4.

Outfit: Escada leather skirt, Hipstik pantyhose, Nine West plateau loafers, Nordgreen watch (use code HLSTYLE for 15% off), Hermes bangle

Photos of me: G. Kramm

Photos of snow, diagrams, video: N. Mölders

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