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Buffalo snow blast falls short of disputed record set in Alaska in 1963

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 20, 2014

FAIRBANKS -- The winter blast that buried Buffalo this week left residents reaching for shovels and reporters searching out snowfall records.

Parts of Buffalo received 6 to 7 feet over a couple of days, leaving the one-day record intact, the news reports said. They reported the record as 75.8 inches, which piled up during 24 hours in April 1921 in Silver Lake, Colorado.

But what the stories didn't say is that the one-day record snowfall in Alaska exceeds the Colorado level by 2 inches, which raises a question about whether the Alaska total from a 1963 snowstorm deserves top billing in the weather annals.

The Alaska claim on the biggest snow day of all dates from Feb. 7, 1963, when the foreman of an Alaska highway department camp 47 miles north of Valdez wrote that 78 inches fell in one day.

Weather observer Ralph Lane, who kept daily weather logs on official forms, said many years later that the snowflakes that day were as big as silver dollars. He said he had been temporarily trapped in his snowplow but managed to get free and the memory was fresh in his mind.

A state highway camp once existed at Mile 47 of the Richardson Highway, about 21 miles north of Thompson Pass, one of the snow capitals of the world.

Thompson Pass picks up an average of about 535 inches a year, and while the highway camp where Lane served as foreman had far less snow on average, it was the site of unusual weather events, Anchorage climatologist Brian Brettschneider wrote in his review of the 6.6-foot snowstorm.

Like much of Alaska, even Thompson Pass has had limited snowfall this season, a total of about 66 inches, mostly in early October, compressed to about 14 inches on the ground.

That the 1963 record did not take place at Thompson Pass -- where only 2.2 inches of snow was recorded on Feb. 7, 1963 -- is one of the issues that raises questions about Lane's accuracy.

But Brettschneider says that other stations bordering Prince William Sound saw heavy rain and snow that day, which eases some of those concerns. Still, many weather historians scoff at the statistic reported by Lane and consider it an obvious error.

A committee of weather researchers in Alaska reviewed all the evidence not long ago and concluded that while there may be reason for doubt, there is not enough clear evidence to say the observation should be tossed out. Rick Thoman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, said it's similar to the practice of reviewing plays in football games.

In this case, there is no instant replay to second-guess the ruling on the field, just a set of unusual circumstances in a spot that is notorious for heavy snow.

"There are a number of questionable aspects to the observation. First, the extremity of the event itself is a significant red flag," Brettschneider wrote on his blog.

He said the weather observer did not make a comment on the form other than filling in the number of inches on the "Record of Climatological Observations." Lane wrote that 78 inches had fallen, with a water equivalent of 6.02 inches.

On the other hand, considerable precipitation fell elsewhere in Southcentral Alaska that day, and it is possible to have heavy snow with temperatures near zero and out-of-the-ordinary snowfall totals in the valley north of Thompson Pass. Plus, the snow totals for the monthly report don't deviate from the first notation.

He said it is possible that 6 1/2 feet of snow could have fallen that day, as reported by Lane.

"This is not the same as declaring the observation to be correct. But, despite the magnitude of the event, there is enough circumstantial evidence to assume the observation is plausible," he wrote.

He reviewed weather statistics from the region, drew weather maps, studied trends and looked for evidence that would either verify or discount the 78-inch report.

In May 1963, the head of the weather bureau wrote a long letter to Lane about some issues with the equipment at the observation station at Mile 47 but he did not question the quality of data Lane was providing.

"This would have been the perfect opportunity to list a series of data quality problems if the state climatologist was especially concerned about his observations," Brettschneider said.

Lane, the weather observer and snowplow driver, retired and lived in Mexico before his death, Brettschneider said. In the mid 1990s, Lane talked to a meteorologist, who relayed the gist of the conversation to the weather historian.

The Mile 47 camp no longer exists but a Department of Transportation foreman who now works in that region said that "if he had to pick a spot where a highly out-of-the-ordinary snow would occur, he would choose either the area around Mile 47 camp or the area at the head of Ernestine Creek," which is 15 miles farther north.

Brettschneider said that on several occasions the area north of Thompson Pass saw several feet in one day, even at low temperatures. From his review of the records, he said, he is "confident that large snow events can occur in the Mile 47 camp region independent of what is observed at Thompson Pass."

And that raises an issue for those who keep records. Brettschneider has asked the National Climate Extremes Committee to "evaluate the validity of the observation" on the Richardson Highway site and determine whether the 24-hour snowfall record belongs in Alaska.

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