What winter? The East shivers and Alaska basks in spring-like weather

Posted: Sunday, December 08, 2002

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - All over Alaska, people are asking the same question: "Where's our winter?"

On Dec. 1 a handful of folks were water-skiing on a lake just north of Anchorage. Trees are springing new buds. Farther north, some rivers are barely icing over, stranding villagers who rely on frozen waterways as roads.

The answer, some Alaskans joke, is that winter went East.

A deadly ice- and snowstorm moved from the Plains to the Carolinas this week, hitting the Northeast on Thursday. But in Alaska, temperatures have soared far above normal for two months, causing heavy rains and floods, not to mention antsy skiers and snowmobilers.

"It's crazy," said postmaster Joe Delia, whose property overlooks the still-unfrozen Skwentna River, about 70 miles northwest of Anchorage and reachable only by small airplane. "I believe in global warming now."

National Weather Service meteorologist Dave Goldstein wouldn't go that far. "Sure, global warming could be a factor, but you can't look at individual events alone," he said, adding that Alaska goes through a warmer-than-usual winter every decade or so.

A more obvious factor this year is El Nino, Goldstein said. El Nino is a warming of a large area of water in the tropical Pacific Ocean - a phenomenon that influences wind and weather patterns.

In this case, a high-pressure ridge is loitering on the British Columbia Coast, channeling warm, moist air into Alaska and largely bypassing the Pacific Northwest, leaving that region drier than usual. The same high-pressure system is pushing cold arctic air into the eastern United States.

Whittier, a town on Prince William Sound, received nearly 50 inches of rain in November - about 290 percent above normal, according to National Weather Service hydrologist Ben Balk.

"The moisture has basically been a firehose to Southcentral Alaska," he said.

Rain was falling on still-green lawns in Anchorage on Wednesday, long after the first major snowfall should have stuck. Alaska's largest city just came off its warmest combined October and November since the National Weather Service began keeping records in 1915.

In Fairbanks, rain has turned roads into sheets of ice - at least when temperatures drop below freezing. So treacherous were the conditions last week that officials closed the schools. And snowmobile dealers are sitting idle.

"Sales have slowed to a crawl at best," said Dan Simmons of Northern Power Sports in Fairbanks. "I've been an avid snowmobiler since 1983 and I've never seen a winter like this."

Even the Arctic coast is unusually warm, worrying subsistence hunters who use shore-fast ice as platforms for their catches. Most winters the ice would already by several feet thick and temperatures would be 20 to 30 degrees below zero, instead of the current plus temperatures, said George Ahmaogak, a Barrow whaling captain and mayor of the North Slope Borough.



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