I’m writing this from a village community center in rural Yukon. It’s been transformed into a checkpoint on the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile dogsled race from Whitehorse, where I live in the Yukon, to Fairbanks, in the Alaska interior.
Outside right now, it’s -39 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s been that way through the 48 hours since the race started. The husky teams handle the cold pretty well, but humans and machines are suffering—I have to go outside every two to three hours to start my car and let it warm up all the way through to prevent it from freezing solid.
This type of cold used to be standard on the Quest, but the last couple of years have been unusually balmy; last year, the race was unable to finish at its usual location because the Yukon River, normally a frozen highway in February, wasn’t safe for travel. Other sled dog races have been affected by the unusual weather, too: low snow levels in Southcentral Alaska, in the big city of Anchorage and the surrounding country, have wreaked havoc on the racing season.
"Over the last, say, 25 years, there is probably some trend for decreased snowfall in the autumn—that is to say the snow is coming later. But if we just look at the total over-winter snow, there is very little trend."
In 2013, the Knik 200 was canceled due to warm weather and lack of snow; in 2014, the Tustumena 200 and the Northern Lights 300 were both canceled for the same reasons, as were high school cross country ski races and a fat-tire bike race. This year, snowless conditions have forced the cancellation of the Norton Sound 450, the Knik 100, and numerous smaller amateur dogsled races and skiing and biathlon events. For only the second time in its history, the Iditarod, the most famous dog sled race in the world, is being forced to change its start location.
The perception in Alaska, from what I can tell as a nearby observer, is that snow accumulation levels are dropping precipitously in the Anchorage area and the surrounding Mat-Su Borough. I called the National Weather Service to see how our perceptions stack up against the data.
“Our climate records here in Anchorage go back to 1916, so we have about a hundred years worth of data,” says Rebecca Duell, a meteorologist at the Anchorage office of the NWS. At the time of my call last week, the Anchorage area had received a total of 19.4 inches of snow since August 1, when the annual count begins. The annual average for this time of year over the past century? Over 50 inches. “So we are 30 inches below average right now,” Duell says.
Up to this point, the 2014-15 season in the Anchorage-to-Willow corridor has the 10th lowest snowfall on record. Some other recent years have been below average, too: in 2013-14, 43.5 inches had accumulated at this point; in 2012-13, 39.8 inches; and in 2010-11, 43.7. On the other end of things, 2011-12 “was one of our snowiest years on record,” Duell says. Ninety-four inches of snow had fallen by this point in that year.
So what does this all mean? Is Anchorage becoming a snowless winter city? It’s a little more complicated than that, according to Rick Toman, the NWS climate science and services manager for the Alaska region. “Some of what we have going on is that people’s working memory is pretty short,” he says. “Over the last, say, 25 years, there is probably some trend for decreased snowfall in the autumn—that is to say the snow is coming later. But if we just look at the total over-winter snow, there is very little trend. In the long term, there’s no trend.”
Anchorage, Toman points out, is coastal: it can go weeks without snow and then get a substantial fraction of its annual snowfall in a one- or two-day storm. That can make it difficult to track season-long trends, since the accumulation is so erratic. “Even though the numbers can look big, you can have long stretches without snow,” he says. “In Anchorage, that’s always been the case.”
That’s small consolation for the race organizers and participants who are seeing their annual events canceled. Even if the overall snow level isn’t decreasing markedly, a shift toward late-season snow would be enough to change the life and culture of Anchorage and the surrounding area in very real ways.
Winter in Alaska means snowmobiling, skiing, snowshoeing, and dogsledding—and all of those activities require some snow cover on the ground, not just in March or April but from November or December on. It’s not just a matter of amateur races being canceled, either: snowmobiles, in particular, are a practical form of transport in a rural Alaska winter. People use them to travel around and to or from the more remote communities that aren’t reachable by road. Trappers use them to work their traplines, they’re integral to ice fishing and some seasonal hunting, and many tourism businesses depend on them too.
Of course, the affected area, from Anchorage north to Willow, is Alaska’s most developed, urban area—for most residents in that part of the state, a reduced or displaced snow cover will only affect their winter hobbies. But that’s no minor thing in a state that defines itself as a winter playground. As David Hulen, the managing editor of the state’s largest paper, the Alaska Dispatch News, asked on Twitter three weeks back: “Is this just a lousy winter or is the basic nature of this place changing in pretty significant ways?”
Dispatches From a Changing Arctic is a biweekly series of reported stories from Alaska and the three Canadian northern territories.
Lead photo: Susan R. Serna/Shutterstock.