Anchorage has broken a nearly 30-year-old record for the most snowfall ever in the month of November. That’s even as this winter is marked by the climate pattern known as El Niño cycling warm water through the Pacific Northwest.
Last month, as part of our Ask a Climatologist segment, National Weather Service climate researcher Brian Brettschneider said the strong El Niño pattern would likely mean less snowfall and warmer temperatures for much of Alaska.
Despite Anchorage’s snowy weather and recent single-digit temps, Brettschneider says the city, and the state as a whole, are still on track for a warmer-than-normal winter.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Brian Brettschneider: Well, as is often the case, it’s a confluence of moisture coming in from just the right spot and just enough cold air and just enough lift in the atmosphere to squeeze out that moisture. And Anchorage was really right under the bullseye for getting that huge dump of snow.
Wesley Early: And how much snow in total fell during November, so far?
BB: So far, we’re up to about 39 inches, which is the highest on record, as you noted. And we’ve actually been keeping snowfall records in Anchorage since 1916. So it’s really a once-in-100-year event, so far.
WE: So we have a record November snowfall. We just had this crazy cold snap over the weekend. A month ago, you told me that we were supposed to have a warmer winter than usual. Was that just something that was true then? Has something changed? Because it seems pretty cold.
BB: Well, it has been so far one of the warmest winters on record. Now, depending on how you define winter, so colloquially, I usually think of it as November through March. And so far November, it looks like we’re already at about a top five warmest November on record for Alaska. As of today, only 1% of Alaska has had a below-normal, colder-than-normal, November. So to me, that validates the call for having a warm winter so far.
Of course, there’s a whole lot of winter left to go. In Alaska, most of the time when it snows, it’s warmer than normal. So in Anchorage, every single day that had snow during that nine or 10-day period where it just seemed like it didn’t stop, every one of those days was warmer than normal. And that’s actually pretty typical. You know, in the Lower 48, it’s gotta be colder than normal to snow. But in Alaska, probably 80% of the time or more when it does snow, it’s actually a warmer-than-normal day.
WE: So I guess moving forward, I know that we started our winter as an El Niño was forming, are we still on track to have a warmer winter than normal? What’s December and January looking like?
BB: Well, so far, it has been warmer than normal. And unfortunately, all the guidance is pretty uniform in keeping things warmer than normal, for the foreseeable future. There can always be cold periods during that, like we’re experiencing right now. But the overwhelming majority of all the guidance says warm, warm, warm, with really no hints at anything other than warm.
WE: So this week is Thanksgiving and the day after, both of those days are supposed to have highs in between like 38 and 40 degrees. I’m curious, with all the snow that’s still on the ground, what a change like that, which is pretty warm for this time of year, could do for the snow?
BB: Well, as of this morning, we still have 17 inches of snow on the ground. And you know, when it’s 38, 40 degrees in the winter, if there’s no wind, the melt isn’t too bad, as long as the temperature gets below freezing at night. It’s really if there’s wind that goes along with those temperatures, it can really kind of wreak havoc on the snowpack and cause a lot of melting. And then of course, it’s really bad when it freezes at night.
The last two years notwithstanding, you know, historically most days in Anchorage where they canceled school (it) was not for cold and snow. It was for warm and rainy and icy. And so that may happen again toward the end of this month. So keep following the latest National Weather Service forecasts. But you know, there’s not a whole lot of good things that happen when it’s 40 degrees in the winter.
WE: So speaking of snowfall, there was a big dump of snow that fell a couple of weeks ago near Thompson Pass, which struck me as it could be close to a record snowfall. I’m curious what happened there.
BB: Yeah, so in about a 20-hour period, they measured 72 inches of snow. And then over about a 30-hour period, I think 84 inches of snow, and at times it was reported to be near 12 inches of snow per hour. All of those may be records for the U.S., and at the hourly rate, potentially a world record, or a tie for a world record.
What’s interesting is that same location, or about one mile away, they recorded 78 inches of snow on February 7, 1963. And that is the Alaska state record. Now, unfortunately, it’s not the national record. The national record is actually lower, because when the national committee reviewed it, they deemed it as being implausible. So this new snow event, which was almost identical, should help pave the way for getting that 1963 event into the record book. So we’re going to be opening that back up again and seeing if we can’t get them to change their mind.