Amid warm, snowless winters, Anchorage skiers ponder long-term future of their sport

After enduring consecutive seasons of record-high temperatures and record-low snows, some Anchorage skiers are eyeing a spot 2,400 feet above the city as a potential refuge.

Arctic Valley, site of an aging downhill ski area, could be rejuvenated into an important base for both alpine and cross-country skiing. That's the idea being discussed by ski coaches at the University of Alaska Anchorage, members of the Anchorage Ski Club -- the nonprofit group that runs Arctic Valley on a shoestring -- and others who cite natural conditions at Arctic Valley that are more favorable to snow and skiing than those in the lowlands.

"It's 20 minutes to winter," Sparky Anderson, UAA's head ski coach, said as he surveyed the snowy scene that was a stark contrast to the bare dirt in the city below.

Anderson and others involved in the discussions envision a major facelift of the ski area that dates back to the World War II era and, some would argue, has changed only modestly since then. The vision is of a dependable and early coating of snow that would support multiple courses for downhill ski training starting in late fall; a groomed cross-country loop winding between current day lodge and the now-empty flat spot that once housed a ski lodge serving Anchorage's military personnel; and better grooming.

All would be made possible by some kind of a snowmaking system -- something that does not yet exist at natural-snow-only Arctic Valley -- and the dry and cold snow-friendly conditions found at a base altitude higher than the top of the tram at Alyeska Resort, Alaska's biggest downhill ski area.

"It would actually give us something that only Dartmouth and Middlebury College have, which is a home hill right in your backyard," Anderson said.

The idea of transforming rustic Arctic Valley is long on enthusiasm and short on details, such as funding sources and plans for maintaining the winding, 7-mile gravel access road safe so that it is safe for more vehicle travel.


Still, it fits in with an emerging picture of the future of snow-dependent winter sports. That future is higher and faker; increasingly snow sports will rely on high altitude and manmade snow.

In a year when snow was so sparse that both Iditarod and Fur Rendezvous sled dog races drastically shortened their Anchorage courses, several sports events were canceled, and the high-profile Tour of Anchorage ski race was shortened and altered for the third consecutive time, manmade snow kept local cross-country skiers on the trails.

The snowmaking system operating since 2013 at Kincaid Park, the city's biggest cross-country venue, "wasn't really designed to save an entire season the way it has for two seasons," said Tamra Kornfield, program manager of the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage. Now the club is starting to consider snowmaking a season-long necessity, not just a backup, she said.

Thanks to that system, the club's grooming staff managed to create a loop of 4 skiable kilometers -- out of 60 in the park and a total of 140 in town that the club maintains. That meant overcoming several logistical challenges, including numerous mechanical glitches, a Cook Inlet water supply containing large amounts of equipment-clogging glacial silt and a scarcity of days with low enough temperatures and humidity levels to ensure that tiny ice pellets blown from the snow guns remain frozen.

It also meant some monotony for avid skiers. "Sometimes it seemed like the same race over and over again," Tim Stone, the ski club's race chairman, said at an award ceremony last month that capped off the Anchorage Cup series of competitions, all of which were held on the same snowmaking loop.

Serious skiers are making do, but club membership and participation in the Junior Nordic program are down, Kornfield said. "I worry about kids not being exposed to skiing consistently and then choosing other sports," she said. "I have faith that we'll go back to normal, but it hasn't happened yet."

Snow scarcities past and present

Dearth of snow is not an entirely new experience for this region of Alaska. There have been poor snow years in the past, and rain has been such a frequent problem at the sea-level Alyeska Resort that the area used to be known for the plastic bags that patrons sometimes donned with their lift tickets. Despite the long stretches of winter when the ground was bare in Anchorage, and despite an obvious lack of natural snow and a pervasive spring scent of thawed soil at the mountain's base, this ski season has actually been a good one for Alyeska, thanks to an abundance of snow at the mountain's high elevations that has allowed lots of opportunities for off-piste skiing in high-altitude outer areas, said Eric Fullerton, marketing director at the resort.

"About a third of the way up the mountain, everything is just about full winter," he said.

There will certainly be cold and snowy years in the future -- possibly as soon as next winter, when there are good chances that a cold La Nina pattern will emerge in the Pacific Ocean as a counterweight to this year's warm and powerful El Nino.

"There's good reason to think that snow will return to Anchorage in some winter near you soon," said Rick Thoman, climate science and services manager for the National Weather Service in Alaska. He noted that not too long ago, in 2012, Anchorage posted a record winter snow season.

Still, this warm winter and Anchorage's past two similar winters, marked by rain rather than snow at lower elevations, are not mere aberrations. Climate scientists say seasons like this one will become more common as Alaska and the rest of the north warm during the course of the 21st century.

Direct blame for the past few winters' conditions is placed largely on some temporary factors -- the El Nino system that started late last year, a lingering warm-water mass in the North Pacific nicknamed "the Blob," a more traditional warm phase of the cyclical Pacific Decadal Oscillation and just a series of bad weather luck. But those proximate causes overlay a long-term and more gradual trend to higher temperatures, scientists say.

"A warming world increases the chances of this kind of winter," Thoman said.

Even some shorter-term weather factors can be influenced by long-term warming. There is evidence that El Nino events are becoming more frequent and stronger, thanks to hotter waters in the equatorial Pacific. Long-term warming in the Arctic, which is happening at twice the global rate, is also cited as a source of for new atmospheric patterns that skew the jet stream and create short-term weather oddities like winter warmth in Alaska at the same time that middle latitudes see a deep freeze.

More rain, less snow

For Anchorage and the Chugach Mountain region specifically, the long-term forecast is for higher winter temperatures, more winter rain and a snowline that rises higher in elevation, according to a comprehensive report on climate change vulnerability issued by the Chugach National Forest as part of its climate assessment program.

The October-to-March snow-day fraction -- the percent of days when precipitation will be snow rather than rain -- is expected to fall 23 percent by mid-century in areas between sea level and 500 meters in elevation, according to the report. The snow-water equivalent, a measure of snowpack, will decline most dramatically in late fall, tumbling by 26 percent in areas below 1,500 meters in elevation. The shift in snowline in January, the year's coldest month, will be dramatic, the report predicts. "By the 2060s, Anchorage, Kenai, Soldotna, Wasilla, and Palmer may have only intermittent snow cover, even in the coldest month of the year," says one section of the report.

Temperatures in Anchorage will rise in all months through the 21st century, though how much depends on global greenhouse gas emissions, according to calculations by University of Alaska Fairbanks' Scenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic Planning. Under a medium scenario, which assumes that carbon emissions will peak late in the century and then decline, average December and January temperatures in the 2040s will be about 6 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they were in the 1961-1990 period, and March will have a temperature average that flips from below freezing to above freezing by the 2060s.


Snow-sports enthusiasts and snow-dependent businesses around the circumpolar north are bracing for -- and, in some cases, already experiencing -- similar changes.

In Norway, snow is expected to become increasingly scarce at low elevations where most people live, causing concerns about impacts to outdoor recreation, including skiing. The Norwegian Environment Agency is working on a plan to accommodate more people at higher elevations, where conditions for winter recreation are expected to be better preserved.

In Sweden, organizers have struggled to stage the legendary long-distance Vasaloppet races, and they have become increasingly reliant on snowmaking. Climate change impacts on skiing are being studied in Finland, Bulgaria and in northern Japan, and there are worries in the Alps, where skiing is big business.

Elite skiers traveling internationally have taken notice, said two-time Olympian Holly Brooks of Anchorage.

Long-distance races are increasingly difficult to stage, and "the World Cup has essentially gone to small loops," Brooks said. One distance race she did complete this year, the Marcialonga in Italy, was run on a 70-kilometer ribbon of manmade snow. "You look around and it's brown grass on either side of the race course," she said.

To UAA astronomy professor Travis Rector, who also skied this year's Marcialonga, the sight of blasting snow guns and blowers was a reminder of home. "It was kind of fun being in Italy and seeing all the same equipment," he said

Expect to see more of that equipment locally, one expert advises.

"If this is the normal, the obvious choice is we're going to have to expand the snowmaking," said Craig Norman, grooming manager for the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage.


On a recent night at the old military bunker that serves as headquarters for the Kincaid grooming operations, Norman mused about ways to preserve skiable trails in the future. There might be an opportunity for partnership with Hilltop Ski Area across town, he said, in which the snowmaking system that covers the gentle slopes of the beginner alpine area might be shared with the adjacent cross-country trails. For now, trail groomers are resorting to use of improvised equipment that grinds glare ice there into something powdery. There are plans for continued summer work to smooth out trail surfaces so they can retain even minimal amounts of snow, he said.

No-snow alternatives

There are other adaptations already in the works.

Two of the ski jumps at the Karl Eid Ski Jumping Complex are now retrofitted with steel tracks and artificial landing surfaces of shingled plastic to allow for summer jumping starting this year -- or uninterrupted jumping even in snowless winters.

The Girdwood Nordic Ski Club, through arrangements with the U.S. Forest Service and the municipal Parks and Recreation Department, has been grooming a roughly 3-kilometer loop at a Turnagain Pass, a site around 30 minutes away by car and 1,000 feet in altitude in the Chugach Mountains. "Everybody started to look for higher-elevation alternatives, for obvious reasons," said Deb Essex, the club's president.

Some alternative winter sports require no snow at all.

Speedskating programs on local rinks and the 400-meter oval in Cuddy Family Park have drawn growing interest from frustrated skiers, as have long-distance tours on frozen lakes traveled by special skates that fit on Nordic ski boots. Skating is not immune to weather challenges, however, and intermittent meltdowns have interrupted activities this winter.

The midtown oval is one of only six in the U.S. that is of Olympic dimensions, and the only one without a built-in refrigeration system, according to US Speedskating. But installing a refrigeration system at the Anchorage oval would be prohibitively expensive, "unless there's a bazillion people who want to come and skate," said Peter Haeussler, head coach for the Alaska Speedskating Club. Another option to help preserve the ice is to create a white surface that reflects solar heat rather than absorbs it, either by painting the asphalt in summer or by mixing a potato-based paint directly in the ice, Haeussler said. But those methods also have drawbacks, he said. The paint typically used on asphalt is slippery, which could cause problems for summer park visitors who use the oval to jog, roller skate or bike, and the paint typically used on or in ice can create a mess and potential environmental concerns during melt, he said.

"You would end up with a river of what looks like melted vanilla ice cream," he said.

Meanwhile, business is booming for sellers of the winter-adapted, wide-wheeled mountain bikes known as fatbikes -- not just in Anchorage but in Finland and other places around the north. "It sure kept a lot of people outside this winter," said Greg Matyas, owner of Speedway Cycle in Anchorage and a pioneer in the sport who designed a specialty brand called Fatback.

The popularity of fatbiking is not lost on the ski community. Many skiers have switched over -- Matyas is a former ski racer -- and this year's version of the Tour of Anchorage ski race incorporated a fatbike competition staged on the loop of manmade snow. Ultimately, Norman said, ski trails might have to be maintained for winter biking as well. "I think in the future we're going to see more of both skiers and bikers sharing the trails," he said.

Unlike skiers, fatbiking enthusiasts can do without winter entirely, Matyas noted. He has been promoting fatbiking as a sport suitable for warm desert or beach destinations.

"You don't even have to have the climate of Alaska. There are places that have sand," he said.

Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen was a reporter for Alaska Dispatch News.