Winter arrives late in Southcentral Alaska

Indian summer making skiers antsy

October 22, 2010 

If this keeps up, will Alaskans forget how to use their snowblowers?

Look outside on a sunny day. Except for the lack of leaves on trees and our eroding daylight, it could be early September. Mountaintops above 3,000 feet in the Chugach Range have a dusting of snow, but that's about it. Most years, September looks similar.

Six times this October, the daytime high temperature has breached 50 degrees. Only three times have the nighttime lows dipped under 25 degrees?

And the National Weather Service forecast mentions only a chance of snow showers through the end of next week. Once again, winter is late arriving in Southcentral.

Last year, the first measurable snowfall didn't float to the ground until Nov. 8, when one to six inches fell in various parts of town. That was less than a week short of the record for the latest first snow in Anchorage -- Nov. 13, 2002. The average over the last 20 years is Oct. 16. (The average for the last five years has been later: Oct. 24.)

Why such tardiness?

The National Weather Service website reports a steady flow of warm air from the Gulf of Alaska has pushed onshore and flowed across Southcentral this month, a pattern expected to remain in place through much of next week.

"A moderate La Nina pattern is setting up for this winter season," the Weather Service website predicts.

LA NINA EFFECT?

A La Nina is characterized by cold ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, and it usually delivers cooler-than-normal temperatures to the Northwest states. That's often been the case in Alaska, too.

"Right now, the charts aren't showing anything," Dave Stricklan, a technician at the Anchorage National Weather Service office, said of the prospect of snow. "I'm getting concerned we may not be seeing anything until November."

On top of that, Southcentral has turned dry since the beginning of September -- on the heels of a wet summer.

"Normally," said Eddie Zingone, a lead forecaster at the National Weather Service in Sand Lake, September and October are two of the wettest months of the year."

WOE TO SNOW LOVERS?

Across Southcentral, some snow lovers are growing antsy.

Hatcher Pass, which typically gets Southcentral's first snow, is bare.

High school cross-country skiing practice starts Nov. 1.

Alyeska Resort is due to open -- weather permitting -- for Thanksgiving weekend, but 80 inches of snow are needed to open the hill from the base of Chair 6.

"Swish-swish ... did you hear that? I know I cannot be the only one who keeps hearing the imaginary sounds of skis on snow or the creaking of poles in faceted, cold, groomed trails," wrote director Hans Hill on the Mat-Su Ski Club website. "Sometimes in the mornings in my dreary state, I hear the radio mention snow in the forecast, but my imagination takes off and I hear 'winter storm advisory, 6-12 inches,' instead of 'snow in higher elevations, little to no accumulation.' "

RELAX -- SNOW WILL FALL

But veteran skiers and snowmachiners are relaxed.

"I just take it as more time to roller ski," said Sue Skvorc of the Mat-Su Ski Club. "When it comes, it's going to come hard and fast."

Diane Moxness, executive director of the Nordic Ski Club of Anchorage, was equally calm. Over the past six years, she's kept track of the first day groomers are on the city trails.

The average date: Nov. 11.

"Everybody gets all nervous," she said. "It comes. Just relax and enjoy the fall."

If dry conditions persist and temperatures stay below 26 degrees, Alyeska is prepared to create its own winter. The resort has 26 fan guns and 18 air water guns, with 14 snowmakers who can work 12-hour shifts to carpet the lower mountain with 18 inches of man-made powder.

"We also have a snowmaking system from the top of the tram down -- just in case we need it," she said.

Soon, Alyeska won't be the only place in Southcentral able to deliver winter even if it stays dry.

At Kincaid Park, piping his been installed by Roger Hickel Contracting Inc. on a $3 million snow-making system that will coat nearly 3 kilometers of trail and the sledding hill near the chalet with man-made snow.

David Parish, president of the Kincaid Project Group, said he anticipates the remaining work on the snow-making system's pump house and electrical system to be done by the end of January.

"In future years," he said, "we'll be able to make snow by Halloween."

Imagine it, winter on demand.


Reach reporter Mike Campbell at mcampbell@adn.com or 257-4329.

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