Copper River Record 2014
By Janelle Eklund
Have you ever driven in these kind of conditions: The temperature about 0°F. Billions of small white dry looking flakes of snow filter down from the sky. Driving along in the day light the visibility isn't too bad but a 'dust cloud' of snow obscures the view to almost zero visibility as you obviously approach another vehicle in front of you. The only clue there is a vehicle in front of you is the cloud of snow. Best to stay far enough away and still have some visibility. Even then, as traffic whizzes by going the opposite direction the visibility is instantly brought to zero. That's when you slow almost to a stop but then worry about another vehicle that might be behind you and not slowing down as much, giving the potential of slamming into you. Even though, as you leave the safety of your home and the light flaked snowfall doesn't look like much, it can be dangerous. Passing another vehicle in this kind of weather can make for a disaster. Don't do it. There have been a couple of these incidents in the area over the years and the results were devastating and deadly. So it's good to think ahead before venturing out in a dusty snow kind of day. This kind of condition can creep up while you are already out and want to make it home, so be smart and careful.
Winter storms can bring Blizzards or Chinooks. Storms are created when two different air masses clash and fight for their own life. For example, when a cold dry mass from the north travels south and hits a warm moist air mass from the south traveling north the fight begins in what is called a front. If the cold air is stronger and pushes away the warm air, then there will be a cold front. If the warm air is stronger and manages to lift over the dense cold air mass, then it will be the winner, creating a warm front. If neither of them are moving fast and not in the mood for a fight then it's a stationary front.
We have had both Blizzards and Chinooks in the Copper Basin. Although I haven't seen too many Blizzards. Blizzards are long heavy snowstorms with very high winds. A Chinook is when the warm air mass wins out replacing the cold polar air mass. Seems like every winter we get at least one Chinook come through and the change in temperature is very dramatic. I have seen it go from minus thirty or forty degrees to plus thirty or forty degrees in a matter of hours. One needs to think about safety in both of these conditions. Blizzards can reduce visibility and create a deadly wind chill factor. Chinooks have been known as a 'snow eater' because its warm and dry air melts the snow very fast. The ground is most likely frozen under the snow and as the snow melts it makes a great ice skating rink - not one that you would walk on without snow cleats on your boots. Last year I thought I was being very careful during this situation when I gingerly walked to the mail box - minus snow cleats. Before I knew it I was laying flat on my back and as my head hit the frozen driveway I heard a crack. I laid there for a minute wondering if I still had all my faculties. I was truly amazed that I got up and walked - or crawled - away unscathed and a day or two later still felt no concussion type symptoms. Maybe it knocked some sense into me - or not - hah! I swear the skull is made of rock - what a great protector! At least after that I wore the snow cleats until they wore out and the ice rink went away. Yes, it's a hassle putting them on but better than knocking yourself silly or breaking a bone.
These Chinooks can also make for unstable snow in Thompson Pass or any mountain pass. High mountains, steep slopes, warm conditions, and unstable snow is the recipe for an avalanche. This was what happened last year at Keystone Canyon on the way to Valdez. This spectacular massive event cut off the flow of the Lowe River and buried the road, making national news. DOT will close the pass if there are avalanches.
Take note and be prepared for any winter weather conditions. Stock your car with a warm blanket or sleeping bag, shovel, snacks, water, flares, tow rope, first aid kit, and make sure you have a winter hat and coat, mittens, snow boots, etc. If you are traveling a long distance it's more comfortable to slip on a pair of street shoes while you are riding in the car but make sure you have your winter boots nearby where you can get at them in case of an accident - or better yet - wear them. This goes for other winter gear too.
Before traveling listen to the weather forecast. Winter Weather Advisories means there may be high accumulations of snow, freezing rain, or sleet. These can all be potentially dangerous. Take heed when you hear a Winter Storm Warning. This means there are very hazardous conditions and it's best not to travel. The snow, freezing rain or sleet is very heavy and the potential for disaster is great. These warnings are usually announced 12-24 hours before the event is expected.
Take note of the weather as you venture out this winter. Be safe and enjoy its beauty.
From my light to yours-
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.