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Wet, windy warmth bears down on Iditarod Trail, Southcentral Alaska

Ben Anderson
Four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey nearing the top of Rainy Pass, March 4, 2013. Mushers heading toward the Bering Sea Coast are in for some wet, warm weather say forecasters. Loren Holmes photo

The National Weather Service reports that a low-pressure system moving out of the North Pacific could bring blowing snow to western Alaska coastal communities, with high winds and possibly rain for mushers along the Iditarod trail. Heavily populated Southcentral Alaska may get soaked, too.

With mushers a mere four days into the 41st running of "The Last Great Race," the weather the rest of the way could prove troublesome, whether it’s the tough-on-dogs warm weather ranging into the mid-30s in the Yukon and Kuskokwim valleys over the next couple of days, or the stronger winds and potential for visibility-destroying blowing snow closer to the Norton Sound coast and the eventual checkpoints of Unalakleet, Shaktoolik and Koyuk.

According to Scott Berg, a NWS forecaster based in Fairbanks, blizzard conditions could prevail beginning Wednesday night in the area south of Kaltag, the last Yukon River checkpoint along the Iditarod Trail.

Race leader Lance Mackey checked out of Ophir at 5:45 a.m. Wednesday, bound for the ghost town of Iditarod, also the halfway point of this year’s race. There, he may end up taking his mandatory 24-hour rest.

It may end up being an ideally timed break, as the weather is expected to arrive later Wednesday and into Thursday. On the northbound route between Iditarod and Kaltag lie the checkpoints of Shageluk, Anvik, Grayling and Eagle Island.

“What that really will entail is potential for some periods of heavy snow, some winds gusting up to 50, possibly 60 mph,” Berg said Wednesday morning. “Some areas through the Alaska Range down there may develop winds of up to 70 mph.”

The system will begin to break down a bit as it travels north, though Berg said winds of between 25 and 30 mph could still prevail along the coast of Norton Sound.

Some mushers might luck out and avoid the warmer temperatures that will reach across the state’s southerly portions. Berg said that the area south of McGrath -- another race checkpoint where several other mushers were resting Wednesday morning -- could see warmer temperatures and periods of freezing rain. A high wind watch is also in effect in the area of McGrath from Thursday morning to Friday afternoon.

Meanwhile, that same low pressure system will crawl its way eastward over the Alaska Peninsula and into Southcentral Alaska, bringing warmer temperatures to Anchorage and high winds to the region.

Dave Stricklan, a forecaster with the Anchorage NWS service office, said that a burst of warm air and wind from the south should sweep into the area on Thursday, bringing winds of 50-70 mph to the Turnagain Arm and Upper Hillside areas, with gusts of up to 90 mph. Stricklan said the areas of Whittier and Moose Pass may see blizzard conditions as well.

Despite the winds, Anchorage may be in for another period of warmer temperatures over the weekend, with highs for Thursday and Friday reaching into the 40s, and mid-to-upper 30s over the weekend. Lows could still dip down into the upper teens.

So the inevitable, jinxing question: is the end of winter in sight for Alaska’s largest city?

“Oh boy, I don’t know if I’d go that far,” Stricklan said. “What are we here, Wednesday? As far as I can really look forward, through Monday, it looks pretty reasonable in terms of temperatures.”

Southcentral residents should wait a bit before declaring winter over -- during last winter’s record-breaking snow accumulation in Anchorage, the snowfall that pushed the city over the brink came on April 7.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskdispatch.com