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Ugly clouds storming into Alaska Thursday bring a silver lining

The weather Thursday night is a good-news-bad-news situation. A cold snap that gripped most of the state is breaking, but snowy, warm, wet hazardous weather is on its way. Loren Holmes photo

The good news across much of the state was that the bitter cold that had settled in, pushing temperatures to a fuel-gelling 50 degrees below zero around parts of the Interior for the first time all winter, was finally breaking.

The bad news was that it was all thanks to a big, northward push of warm, moist Pacific Ocean air that was bringing, or forecast to bring, all sorts of interesting precipitation -- snow, rain, sleet, freezing rain, ice pellets, maybe even some graupel -- not to mention wind.

The National Weather Service hazards map for much of the state was brightly colored in a patchwork of red, pink and yellow. The first marks a forecast zone under a weather warning, the second a watch, and the third a mere advisory.

The state's largest city, Anchorage, was under the latter. Snow was beginning to fall there, but it was expected to mix with freezing rain and sleet before midnight -- but hopefully not until after the evening commute wraps up.

Most of the population of the 49th state lives in or around Anchorage. It is a major urban area with the usual urban problems when the roads turn slick as a hockey rink. Unintentional games of bumper car become the norm.

Outside of Anchorage, there were plenty of places where people were just hunkering down, as is the norm when the weather gods frown. Much of Southwest Alaska, the Interior and the Arctic north were under warnings or watches for blizzard or blowing snow with the Weather Service predicting visibility to a half mile or less in many places.

It was a bad time to be on the trail in areas where there are no roads and people travel most often by snowmachine or four-wheeler. The cold snap of recent weeks has helped to freeze up lakes and rivers across the state, but it's just the beginning of winter, and there is still plenty of open water, especially on rivers.

Weather was expected to begin stabilizing by the weekend so Alaskans could start digging out. The port city of Valdez, the terminus for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, was forecast to get 8 to 16 inches of snow Thursday night, followed by 4 to 8 inches mixed with rain on Friday, then 3 to 6 inches mixing with rain Friday night.

But hey, 15 inches to 2 1/2 feet of snow qualifies as little more than a dusting in Valdez, a city where snowfall is sometimes measured by the yard.

And speaking of places accustomed to measuring snow by the yard, the northern Panhandle, a region that includes the capital city, Juneau, is under a winter storm warning complete with snow turning to freezing rain. The area has already seen a fair amount of snowfall in this storm, with the town of Gustavus hit by up to 30 inches, and more is on the way.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com