Wind and snow fouled up plans for ferry passengers to college actors Thursday as Juneau braced for worse under its first blizzard warning in recent memory.
The National Weather Service predicted snow accumulations of 10 to 17 inches by 6 p.m. Friday. Winds gusted as high as 55 mph Thursday afternoon by the Federal Building.
Travel was strongly discouraged for everything but emergencies.
A "blizzard warning" is issued when there's considerable snowfall and sustained or frequent gusts of 35 mph winds that reduce visibility to a quarter-mile or less for at least three hours or more.
It's not to be confused with a winter storm warning, which is less severe.
Several sources were contacted Tuesday, but no one could recall the last time a blizzard warning was issued for Juneau.
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"A lot of times snow is real wet so it doesn't move around, regardless of how strong the winds are," National Weather Service forecaster Kimberly Vaughan said. "We've got real dry snow, and with the increased winds, it just takes what has fallen and lifts it back up in the air to add to the obstruction of the vision. It never settles."
The Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center raised the avalanche danger level to "serious" Thursday and expected it to climb to "high" if the storm continued to develop.
Downtown and Douglas received the brunt of the winds Thursday afternoon. Near-whiteout visibility was reported downtown. Wind blew a 4-by-8-foot chunk of plywood through a window at Seong's Sushi on Ninth Street.
Conditions were slightly better in the Mendenhall Valley, where afternoon visibility had dipped as low as one mile, with 25 mph gusts.
By 4 p.m. Thursday, downtown had accumulated about two inches of snow, while .8 inches had fallen at the National Weather Service office on Mendenhall Loop Road.
The weather service expected to shift into a winter storm warning after midnight, Vaughan said. Windy and gusty conditions were forecast to continue in downtown and Douglas.
An overnight snow accumulation of seven to 12 inches was predicted, with three to five more inches by 6 p.m. Friday.
"It's not great traveling in the valley, but it's certainly not as risky as other places, like downtown Juneau," Vaughan said.
Juneau public schools continued on schedule Thursday afternoon and all buses ran their normal routes. But most after-school activities and Community Schools activities were canceled.
Superintendent Peggy Cowan planned to announce any Friday closures by 6 a.m. today.
The downtown, Douglas and Mendenhall Valley libraries closed at 5 p.m. Thursday due to weather and hazardous driving conditions. The University of Alaska Southeast canceled evening classes and its Thursday production of "Vagina Monologues."
The Alaska Marine Highway System's fast ferry Fairweather left Juneau for Haines on Thursday morning with 50 passengers and 21 cars. The boat made it two miles north of Sentinel Island before 8- to-10-foot seas forced it to retreat to Auke Bay.
It was the 10th time since June 7, 2004, that high winds in Lynn Canal canceled a Fairweather trip, AMHS operations manager Jim Beedle said. If the forecast of stronger winds holds today, it would be the 11th.
"Snow is not the problem," Beedle said. "Our problem is the wind in Lynn Canal. These screaming northerlies with the extreme wave heights are just too much."
The Fairweather is the lone ferry that runs into wind problems, Beedle said. Travelers hoping to go north to Haines today are advised to call the terminal before they depart. That number is 789-7453.
Winds didn't stop Alaska Marine Lines barges.
"The barges are still moving pretty much on schedule," said Tom Knuthson, who works in the operations division. "The time between ports is a bit more because of winds, but we always seem to make it through. It's not very nice out there, to be sure."
Traffic was normal Thursday afternoon at Juneau International Airport. To be safe, personnel were on standby, preparing for the expected shift in the evening.
"I haven't seen any delays with Alaska Airlines," acting airport manager Patty deLaBruere said. "They've been getting in and out. Our crew is geared up for regular operations and we're going to continue with 24-hour snow removal."