Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Winter of Our Discontent, Indeed

Usually it's clear and cold this time of year.

While most of the Lower 48 has spent the winter shivering and cursing the cold, in most of Alaska we have been scratching our heads, wondering when Old Man Winter is going to show up. Here it is the middle of January and our lawn is visible.

There are typically a few things we can count on here in the banana belt of Alaska. (Notice I said “typically.” The only normal, as far as the weather goes here, is there is no normal.) First off, most of the smaller lakes in the area are frozen over by the end of October. Typically, kids go out for Halloween with several inches of snow on the ground,  their costumes buried under heavy coats. (Truth be told, Trick-or-Treating in Alaska is more like a bunch of little flashers with costumes under the coats.) In early November the snows arrive in regular patterns, and sometime around Thanksgiving there will be the first stretch of sub-zero temperatures (below -18 degrees C) lasting at least a week. Regular snows last through December, with an occasional sub-zero spell. In January things typically clear up and get cold through most of February. Often, getting up to zero feels like a relief. (I whined about the cold in this post.) 

Last winter at the mouth of the Kenai River
The winter chill and snow sounds, to most folks from warmer climes anyway, like it would be a miserable combination with the lack of sunlight. Surprisingly, it isn’t. The snow is an efficient light reflector, and even the weakest source of light helps to illuminate the landscape. We light our back yard up for winter by putting lights on a spruce tree in the garden. Even without lights, on clear nights with a moon the produced effect is almost like day. Moonless, crystal clear nights provide the opportunity to watch the northern lights.

And too, there are things like the Peninsula Winter Games - with games, ice sculptures and community events - to make it possible to celebrate winter. (See this post on WinterFun.) The Tustumena 200 sled dog race and various snow machine events make it possible to get out and enjoy the outdoors with friends.

Today at the mouth of the Kenai River. So very wrong.

Ice sculptures typically add a little color and fun to winter.

There has been none of the above this year. This has been a weird winter. All totaled, we’ve had less than eight inches of snow - all of it gone at this point. The coldest temperature I’ve recorded at the house has been minus 4 degrees F, which occurred when we had a very brief spate of cold weather that lasted three days, before jumping back up to above freezing. Right now, as I write this, it is 38 degrees above zero with dark gray clouds spitting freezing rain. There will be no ice sculptures because the pond from which the ice is cut isn’t frozen thick enough to provide it. The Tustumena 200? Maybe if the dogs pulled carts, but as it is, the race has been postponed and may possibly be cancelled entirely.

Our spruce tree last year
So what’s the deal? Why are people down south starting to eyeball Alaska as a winter get-away to warm up? Basically, it’s a matter of highs and lows.

This winter has seen a continual pattern of strong low-pressure systems pushing north out of the Pacific and smashing into southern Alaska. Upon collision, the systems just sort of spin around, sucking up more warm air off the water to circulate over the land until they are pushed out of the way by the next incoming low.  Those systems have been strong enough to hold back the high-pressure systems we usually get out of the northwest, from Siberia. In fact, those bullying low-life-pressure systems are slapping the snot out of the highs, and sending them packing toward the east. Instead of dropping down through Alaska, the highs slink off in defeat - taking all their cold air with them - drift over Canada, then drop down to raise havoc on the Lower 48. 

The spruce tree this year - pathetic!
Yo, Richard Three-I’s! I think everyone can dig your vibe, “Now is the winter of our discontent.”