HOMER — I took last winter personally, the months of snowless dark. And I had none of my usual outlets for surviving — or thriving — in the cold. Local ski trails were grassy. Walking routes were glazed in ice. Without snow, I ran out of ways to coax my children outside so that we all wouldn't go crazy. I unfurled an old tarp across our steep, green backyard and sent them down it in sleds. That held their interest for 30 minutes.
I'd always bragged to folks Outside that in Alaska we enjoyed a "reliable" winter. But as they got buried in successive snowstorms on the Eastern Seaboard for the second year in a row, nothing seemed reliable about our winter. It wasn't winter at all. It was a punch to the gut.
And things were crummy well beyond Homer last winter. Anchorage didn't get a decent dump until late January. The Kenai Peninsula's Tustumena 200 sled dog race, a qualifying race for the Iditarod, was canceled for the second year in a row because of lack of snow. The Iditarod restart was shifted to Fairbanks after the ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage on trucked-in snow. Anchorage-area snowmachiners found themselves wading through water. Alyeska Resort in Girdwood limped along through grim conditions. And when the ski mountain finally got a fantastic dump at the end of March, the crowds never materialized. Anchorage residents were too busy mowing their lawns.
So as this autumn rolled around, the anxiety grew. We couldn't have another terrible winter, could we? And what about winters down the road? Given climate change, is this what we'll have to endure for years and decades to come?
Before trying to gaze into the future, I felt I had to look back to understand whether last winter was really as bad as I remembered. The answer was yes. By measurable standards, last winter was unusually miserable. Anchorage got just a third of its normal winterlong snowfall. Snowpack on the Kenai Peninsula was dismal — at or near record lows — except high in the mountains, where no one was around to enjoy it.
Then this November delivered another bout of bad news. School in the Mat-Su was canceled after rain fell on the season's first snows, turning roads into deadly rinks. Things looked shaky.
But there have been glimmers of hope, too. There was enough snow on the ground in Homer a few days before winter solstice to have a sledding birthday party for my 6-year-old daughter. By the week before Christmas, the local ski trails were glorious. Farther north, an overnight Christmas storm brought more than a foot of snow to the top of the mountain at Alyeska Resort. By New Year's Eve, members of the Anchorage Snowmobile Club had been enjoying a solid base of snow for two months at one of the region's most popular sledding spots two hours north of the city. And Anchorage has already seen nearly the same amount of snow that fell all of last winter. As far as snow goes, we are well ahead of last winter's abominable curve.
But it hasn't been all cheery news. The Knik 200 sled dog race — scheduled to start Jan. 2 — was canceled because of iffy trail conditions. And days of winter rains have left many people anxious. What will the rest of our winter of doubt bring?
I called Rick Thoman, climate science and services manager for the National Weather Service, and asked what kind of snow Southcentral Alaska might expect the rest of the winter. The answer was not simple.
The globe is experiencing a very strong El Niño event, Thoman explained. This means there's an area of warmer-than-average ocean water sitting off the coast of equatorial South America, which messes with normal wind patterns and impacts our weather, even though we're thousands of miles away. El Niños aren't rare. They come around every three to five years. But this year, the area of warmer water is particularly tepid, delivering an extreme El Niño seen only two or three times over the last five and a half decades.
What might this extreme El Niño mean for our snow? Chances are, Thoman said, we're likely to see warmer-than-normal and wetter-than-normal conditions in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska, particularly after the new year. The rest of the state may escape this warm curse because El Niño's grip lessens the farther north or west you go.
So were these few inches of snowfall in Homer just a tease? When I pressed Thoman about it, he said his best guess for Southcentral would be below-average snowfall once again.
That was a daunting thought. But Thoman brightened: "Last year was so pathetic," he added. "Odds would favor that it wouldn't be that bad." Perhaps this was a glimmer of good news, but it didn't feel particularly encouraging.
And there's just so much bad snow news all over — from record-low snowpack in the Sierras to rain plaguing snow-starved ski areas in the Alps. Will Alaska snow eventually disappear, too? The question felt existential.
A stake in the snow
I knew the available data couldn't capture how important snow is to Alaskans.
We all know that snow brings endless recreational opportunities — mushing, snowmachining, fat biking, skiing, sledding, snowboarding, snowshoeing. Snow and ice are needed, not just for winter sports enthusiasts, but for backcountry travel between Bush villages and safe passage for subsistence hunters.
And snow is critical to Alaska's ecosystems. It provides an insulating blanket to protect the natural world from the harshest conditions of northern winters. Small mammals like voles and mice burrow under the snow, where the temperatures are warmer. They need it for survival, and the weasels, lynx and other animals that prey on them consequently depend on it, too. Without snow, snowshoe hares look starkly out of place all winter — and become far easier for coyotes to spot. Without snow, our lakes and rivers get thirsty.
These facts are important, but they don't get at the essence of snow and the intimate relationship many Alaskans seem to have with it. I decided to conduct an unscientific online poll among Facebook friends: How do you feel about snow? I asked. Comments streamed in. It brings light to wintertime darkness, and it begets silence. It covers up the junk in your neighbor's yard — and yours.
The question seemed to spark that childhood excitement many of us connect to snow. And it evokes warm, deep memories. One woman recalled a massive snowstorm when she was growing up in the Chicago area. Her father built a snow fort complete with glass windows and a mini door. "To be 'snowed in' is pure heaven!" a man wrote. "Fingers crossed!"
Many people agreed there is something magical about snow. It makes the world a "fairyland" full of secrets, one person reported. "Get out and enjoy it while you can!" another respondent advised. Two others shared recipes for snow ice cream. One person called snow "the soul of our Alaskan winters."
The economic impacts of Alaska snow are enormous, too. Consider all of those lift tickets purchased, snow plowers hired, Iditarod weekend hotel rooms booked, gallons of gas burned so people can reach snow.
We love snow so much, we make it. Alyeska Resort in Girdwood just revamped its snowmaking equipment, which can pump out 2 million gallons of water an hour in the form of snow. And the nonprofit Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage and its partners recently plunked down more than $3 million for snowmaking equipment in Kincaid Park.
The future of snow
As it was with much of the planet, last year was warm — Alaska's warmest on record, some 3 degrees above the 30-year normal. Most of the warming happened in the winter and spring months. Consider this: Between 1949 and 2014, average winter temperatures in Anchorage increased 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
And we're seeing impacts of this warming on our snow. In Alaska, snow melts earlier in the spring, decreasing the number of months it's on the ground. And then, climate scientist Rick Thoman said, there's "this whole freezing-rain issue." One of the worst bits of news about snow is actually about rain: The prospect of winter rain is rising, even as far north as the Arctic.
Thoman said that over the coming decades, we'll see the snow line move to higher elevations, away from where most Alaskans live. Homer may get too warm for snow at all, Thoman predicted. And farther north, Alaskans are likely to see more winter rains, erasing what little snow that does fall. But north of Talkeetna, Thoman said, where winters are more dependably cold, some amount of warming won't affect snow levels. For the time being, anyway.
But changes won't be linear. We're certain to have big snow years in the future, but we just don't know when. Research shows that climate change will increase the frequency of extreme El Niño events, like what we're experiencing this year. But forecasting precipitation further out than a week is difficult. As the days shorten each fall, we'll be left in the dark about what the approaching winter will bring.
Loss of snow is sure to have dramatic effects across Alaska — and not just on our psyches.
• Decreased snow levels in Southeast have already caused die-offs of western yellow cedar, a culturally significant species with shallow roots that freeze when winter temperatures dip and there's no snow on the ground to insulate them.
• Jim Dau, a caribou biologist with Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Kotzebue, credits rain falling on snow with accelerating a sharp population decline of more than 200,000 animals in the Western Arctic caribou herd. Winter rains melt the snow into a hardpan of ice that seals off the low-growing vegetation on which the animals depend.
• Low snowpack means Alaska's salmon streams run lower, too, providing less fish habitat and making them more susceptible to warming. All of this, Cook Inletkeeper's science director Sue Mauger said, is stressful for Alaska's iconic fish.
'A totally wondrous thing'
While contemplating more snowless winters, I reached out to one of my favorite painters — and one of Alaska's most accomplished artists. Kesler Woodward's paintings conjure up the magical world of snow in Fairbanks, where he lives. Woodward, who grew up in South Carolina, has spent a good chunk of his life looking at snow and recreating it in paint. One of the first paintings he worked on after moving to Fairbanks depicted the way dry, fluffy snow piles up on bare branches. Undisturbed by wind, three or four inches of it layered onto a single twig. That painting is now in the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.
"After almost 40 winters in Alaska," he said, "I have yet to see it start snowing and wish it would stop."
But even in Fairbanks, Woodward said you can't depend on snow between October and April, nor can you avoid winter rain.
"It's a trial," he said. But snow still enchants him. "It's a totally wondrous thing to me after all these years," Woodward said.
Perhaps there's time to harness the collective wonder many of us feel about snow, our excitement about it and our dependence on it, to take actions that will slow the pace of these changes or stall them.
Like salmon, snow is central to Alaska's identity and to how Alaskans live. One of the respondents to my online survey quoted Carly Dennis, a Chugiak High School student and a volunteer with Alaska Youth for Environmental Action. She called snow Alaska's "signature precipitation."
And indeed, if we lose snow, we are bound to lose many things, including part of what makes us who we are.
Miranda Weiss is the author of "Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska." She writes about life in Homer in her weekly Northern Lights column on the website of The American Scholar.