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Snowfall lingers deep into summer in mountains surrounding Anchorage

Craig Medred photo

Ice finally went out of Rabbit Lake in the Chugach Mountains in mid-July, ending fears that a new ice age might be brewing only a few thousand feet above Alaska's largest city. But plenty of snow still clings to the mountains surrounding the lake at about 3,100 feet. And just over a ridge, ice floated in McHugh Lake at an elevation of only 2,900 feet near the end of July.

A hiker does not need to go much higher than that to find the Endless Winter, either.

"You can see that there will not be much of a summer at elevations above 4,000 feet,'' noted Rick McClure, who conducts snow surveys for the U.S. National Resources Conservation Service. "We had record high snow water contents in the Chugach this past winter. We have also had a very cool May, June -- except for one week -- and July.''

Anchorage set a snowfall record of 133.6 inches this winter. That's more than 11 feet. The height of a standard basketball hoop is 10 feet. An 18-wheeler rises to 13 feet, 6 inches -- so a couple feet of it would have been visible sticking out of all the snow that fell on Anchorage.

Most Alaskans expected all that snow to melt away quickly, as it usually does. But it didn't. In many places, unusually cool summer weather meant that winter lingered. Normally, according to McClure, snow is gone from the Anchorage Hillside by May 18; there was still snow there at the end of May this year. And June didn't exactly come marching in with the promise of a solar heat gun to make the white remnants disappear.

June in the mountains above Anchorage felt a lot like an early May or maybe a late September. Then again, separating perceptions from reality can be difficult. The human memory tends to see what it wants when analyzing climate. Ask the old timers, and they'll tell you there were always winters colder, or warmer -- always winters with less snow or more snow.

The cold of June could have been psychological baggage left over from the winter of the record snows. But it wasn't. The mind may play tricks on people, but the data doesn't lie. "I do not think it is your perception, with the minimum temperature being 33 degrees Fahrenheit on the 10th of June,'' McClure said. That's just 1 degree above freezing.

Whether this is a bad thing or a good thing depends on your point of view.

Backcountry skier Tim Kelley of Anchorage said it enabled him to set a new, personal record for summer skiing. "I set my PR for the latest I’ve skied in Prince William Sound,'' about 60 miles southeast of Anchorage, he said. That came near the end of July. Kelley hopes to extend the record further.

"It should be feasible to ski in (Prince William Sound) in August,'' he reported.

That probably won't leave much time between the melt of the last of last winter's snow and the start of next winter. It is not unusual for the higher peaks around the Sound to be covered with "termination dust,'' as the Alaska old timers called early snowfall, by the middle of September. Glaciers, of course, start forming when the snow of a new winter arrives before the snow of an old winter is gone. Snow piles upon snow until the weight of it compresses the snow at the bottom into ice. Then you have an Ice Age.

Endless winter, baby. Endless winter.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com