The Seward Highway will likely remain closed from Bird Point to Girdwood until at least noon Wednesday. That's according to the Alaska Department of Transportation, which announced late Tuesday that it planned to open the highway past Bird on into Anchorage at 5 p.m.
Updates from the state followed emergency closure of the highway from mileposts 90-115, between Alaska's largest city and the ski resort town of Girdwood, due to low visibility caused by blowing snow conditions and avalanches. Around 9 a.m. Tuesday, one such avalanche flung snow and debris onto the highway from up on McHugh Creek, a popular hiking and ice-climbing destination along Turnagain Arm, officials said.
Similar conditions were reported in Portage Valley, the turnoff from the Seward Highway that leads to the harbor town of Whittier. Transportation officials announced that the Whittier Tunnel was also closed as a result of the extreme weather.
Further avalanche mitigation could be necessary. A week of heavy snowfall over the past week followed by high winds along Turnagain Arm Monday night have increased the risk of avalanche.
Extreme conditions were being reported around Southcentral Alaska, state officials reported, laying out a list of four:
1. Anchor Point – 8-10 inches of snow with 30 mph winds, snow drifts and poor visibility.
2. Seward – Over a foot of snow, 40 mph winds, extreme blizzard conditions.
3. Homer – 60 mph gusts, 6-7 foot drifts, extreme driving conditions, schools and offices closed.
4. Kodiak – 38 degrees, winds, rain on ice, Airport currently closed.
Travelers were advised to use extreme caution if they must drive in these areas. The Anchorage School District canceled school bus routes from Girdwood and along the Hillside due to bad driving conditions.
The Seward became at least the fourth Alaska highway closure since Friday, when heavy snowfall in northeast Prince William Sound caused an avalanche on the Richardson Highway -- the only road in or out of Valdez -- for a day. The Copper River Highway -- the road that connects the coastal town of Cordova to its airport -- saw several closures after avalanches on Friday and Saturday.
Also on Saturday, the Anchorage Police Department closed a portion of the southbound Glenn Highway due to blowing snow conditions and extremely low visibility that caused multiple accidents.
The Alyeska Resort even went so far as to close the mountain to skiers and snowboarders.
The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center reported that the avalanche danger along Turnagain Arm was "considerable":
Avalanche danger is considerable this morning and may trend towards high as this most recent storm intensifies throughout the day with increasing precipitation. Human triggered avalanches will be likely with the increased load of new snow forecast and fresh wind slabs.
The National Weather Service reported wind gusts up to 100 mph could persist through 9 p.m. Tuesday along Turnagain Arm.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com