Anchorage is poised to see the breaking of a weather record that has stood for more than half a century, after more than a month without significant snowfall.
Jason Ahsenmacher, a National Weather Service meteorologist based in Anchorage, said Monday the outlook is good for Anchorage to at least tie the 1958 record of 36 consecutive days without at least one-tenth of an inch of snowfall -- the minimum the federal agency considers measurable -- if there's no snowfall by Friday. This week's forecast is not calling for significant chances of snow until Sunday.
"Right now, it's looking like we'll break that record," Ahsenmacher said. "If we don't get any snow then, we could break the record by quite a bit."
Ahsenmacher said that as of Tuesday, Anchorage's current spell stands at 33 days. Just 6.1 inches of snow have been recorded at the Anchorage office since Dec. 1, with the city's last measurable snowfall occurring Jan. 14.
Brian Brettschneider, a climatologist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said Monday that not merely Southcentral Alaska but much of the state to the north has remained relatively free of precipitation this winter.
"Not only is it a lack of snow, but it's also a lack of precipitation for everyone north of the immediate Gulf coast," Brettschneider said. "Kind of everyone north of the coastal mountains has been really dry."
Brettschneider said this winter's weather doesn't bear any significant links to this year's El Niño weather cycle or climate change. He said Anchorage's average snowfall has generally been remaining the same or increasing, noting the city saw record snowfall during the 2011-12 winter season.
"Really, any way you look at it as far as precipitation and snowfall for Anchorage, there's absolutely no correlation at all," Brettschneider said. "This year's low snowfall is no relationship to global climate change."
Brettschneider said in an email that although the weather service's official climate records begin in 1952, when a weather station opened at what is now Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, the city saw "a remarkable 78-day snowless streak" based on records taken at Merrill Field from Jan. 6 through March 25, 1952. Five other periods without snow longer than the current streak were also recorded -- in the winters of 1923-24, 1931-32, 1933-34, 1937-38 and 1939-40.
Anchorage has received a total of 25.8 inches of snow so far this season, which puts it among the three least-snowy seasons to date since the 1952 site switch, according to the agency.
Ahsenmacher said many drivers of Alaska's climate are generated in the subtropical Pacific Ocean near Indonesia, with weather systems forming and heading east across the Pacific. Those systems have been deflected northward by the western "North American ridge," a set of conditions originating off the California coast and extending as far north as Southeast or Southcentral Alaska.
"There's been a very strong North American ridge, which has been blocking the North Pacific jet and sending a lot of energy into the Gulf of Alaska," Ahsenmacher said. "That right there is not a typical El Niño weather pattern."
The arrival of those weather systems in Southcentral Alaska generates what Ahsenmacher calls "southeast flow," or low-altitude winds blowing into the area from the southeast, perpendicular to the Chugach Mountains. Those systems tend to lose their precipitation prior to crossing the mountains, leaving Anchorage dry, while Whittier and parts of the Kenai Peninsula see heavy snowfall.
"Consistently we've been getting systems moving into the Gulf giving us southeast flow, so that's a very downscale type of system for us," Ahsenmacher said. "So we'll have no snow here in Anchorage, while there's 2 feet in Turnagain Pass."
Instead of snow to greet the new year, Anchorage saw local streets become ice rinks, which led to dozens of crashes and vehicles in distress over the New Year's weekend. Since then, the Southcentral region has been under several freezing rain advisories affecting commuters traveling to and from Alaska's largest city.
Anchorage Fire Department spokesman John See described the city's spring fire outlook Tuesday due to the low snow as "a double-edged sword." The absence of snow not only means an earlier start to the fire season, it also means no snowpack to compress the ground clutter where fires often begin, which means they're more easily fed by oxygen.
"From a fire behavior standpoint, we're going to have more intense fires and higher flame lengths -- maybe double the flame lengths we'd see during a winter when the fuels are more matted down," See said. "That ignites the tops of trees; the spruce trees torch, and there's embers -- and if there's any kind of wind you get spotting."
See said Anchorage homeowners can call him at 907-267-4902 to schedule a "Firewise" inspection, which spots fire dangers such as trees, tall grass, gas cans or snowmachines too close to homes or firewood stacked under outdoor decks. A needs-based program can reimburse up to half of homeowners' costs for having trees that pose hazards in a fire cut down by a tree service. Firefighters are also encouraging residents to use the city's three woodlots, which take loads of scrap wood for modest fees.
Alan Czajkowski, Anchorage's director of public works, said Tuesday the city's annual overall budget of about $21.5 million for street maintenance has seen "pretty minimal" savings from reductions in snowplowing this year. Sanding work on local roads is "up a little bit," which cuts into any savings.
"It's a trade-off," Czajkowski said. "There's always offsets to everything we do."
State road crews have also faced increased costs for sanding, according to Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy. She said the state has seen no net savings from reduced plowing, due to pothole patching and repairs on roads where existing cracks have allowed the recent cycle of freeze-and-thaw conditions to cause even more damage.
"What you'll find right now is that if there's any water, if there's any cracks -- especially if there's an older road -- water gets in," McCarthy said. "Water is not good for roads."
Tabb Thoms, president and founder of Alaska Snow Removal, said Tuesday the scant snowfall has drastically cut the number of snowplow drivers who've done work for him.
"We're probably capping out last year this year, in the record low business as far as snow removal," Thoms said.
Thoms said economic repercussions from the weather have been rippling through Southcentral Alaska's economy, ranging from snowplow work to sellers of snow melting products, stuck with excess stock, and taxicab drivers who aren't seeing more fares on snowy days.
"You have to plan for it," Thoms said. "Think of the snowplow guys that brought in all those plows, as well as the workers who do that work like we do."
At Alyeska Resort near Girdwood, which is benefiting from the "southeast flow" pattern being tracked by the weather service, spokesman Ben Napolitano said staff has been added to accommodate an influx of skiers amid 563 inches of snowfall this season. The bounty of snow represents its deepest snowpack in three years -- and currently the deepest of all ski resorts in North America, according to skiing website Unofficial Networks.
"Even though Anchorage is experiencing a lower than normal winter, Alyeska is experiencing a very snowy winter ski season with fantastic and safe skiing conditions top to bottom," Napolitano wrote in an email Monday.
Meteorologist Ahsenmacher said the light snowfall at lower elevations has been making his job easier -- perhaps too easy.
"From a forecaster's perspective, it makes it more challenging to forecast snow events for Anchorage," Ahsenmacher said. "Since we've had hardly any, it largely takes the fun out of winter weather."