Climate change will deliver more heavy precipitation events to Southcentral. Is Anchorage prepared?

a man with his snowblower
An Anchorage resident blows snow off his driveway on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Over the last two weeks, many Anchorage residents have been frustrated by snow-clogged roads, after storms dropped 40 inches of snow on the city in ten days. 

Tiffany Hanson lives in Spenard and said graders finally came through her neighborhood for the first time on Friday. 

“Every day I would come home, I would get stuck in the cul-de-sac and dig for three hours,” Hanson said. “It was awful. I was exhausted, my shoulder was hurting.”

Hanson’s hospital shift begins at 4 a.m., and she didn’t have the option to stay home. She’s lived in Anchorage for 21 years and said this is the worst plow response she’s seen so far. 

Her elderly neighbor has a heart condition and Hanson said she was worried for her, seeing how bad the neighborhood roads had gotten.

“I thought, ‘there’s no way an ambulance is going to be able to get to her if they need to,’” Hanson said.

Anchorage broke its November snowfall record halfway through the month after repeated storms. Climatologists say the city could see more heavy snowfall like this in the future.

As human-caused climate change progresses, driven by fossil fuel combustion, the oceans and atmosphere will continue to warm, said climate specialist Rick Thoman with the International Arctic Research Center. Warmer oceans means there’s more water evaporating into the atmosphere.

And for Alaska, that translates to more precipitation. That could mean winters with a lot of rain and no snow, but it could also mean winters with a lot of snow, all at once.

“As long as it remains cold enough for there to be snow, we can expect more of these kinds of events in Anchorage,” Thoman said. “Just on the general principle that extreme precipitation events are increasing.”

This is the second time Anchorage has broken a monthly precipitation record in less than a year. Parts of the city saw well over three feet of snow last December.

Climatologists also note that in warmer temperatures, snowfall tends to be dense and wet — and harder to plow.

In an interview on Friday Mayor Dave Bronson acknowledged residents’ frustration with neighborhood roads. But he still called the city’s plowing response a success.

“We executed our plan. And that’s the definition of success,” he said.

Bronson said the city’s snow plow fleet isn’t meant to handle record snowfall like Anchorage saw this month and last winter on its own. 

“We staff for an average snowfall, and then we bring on contractors to fill that gap for the peak. And boy, last week we sure had a peak,” Bronson said.

Bronson said this year the city brought on private contractors to start plowing roads within five days. But even with the additional plows, in some cases, residents like Hanson had to wait more than a week for their neighborhoods to get plowed out.

Bronson said the city could add more contracts to deal with future heavy snow years, but said that decision is up to the city’s street maintenance manager Paul VanLandingham.

“If Paul needs them, he will get them. I don’t micromanage that. That’s a real good question for Paul.”

VanLandingham did not respond to phone and email requests for comment. 

Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson delivers the annual State of the City address to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce at the Dena’ina Center on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

This month’s snowfall broke the November record set in 1994. But while it’s a significant amount of snow, it’s not unprecedented, said Thoman, the climate specialist. 

“The idea that ‘oh, we could never have seen this happening, we could never have been prepared.’ The climate information that we have at hand tells us that yes, we can see this and we have seen this repeatedly over the last 70 years,” Thoman said.

“If you were born in 1950 in Anchorage, you have seen this kind of snow more than one handful of times now in your lifetime,” he added.

Bronson on Friday expressed doubt that climate change is driving the extreme weather. 

“I’m not an atmospheric scientist whatsoever. I don’t know what’s causing it,” he said. “Is it getting warmer year over year in the last couple of years? I don’t know.”

But at his State of the City address to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce on Monday, the mayor acknowledged that heavy precipitation could continue into the future and the city may need to plan for that in its plow response.

“Two years in a row now Alaska has been hit with record storms. It’s evident that the weather pattern is shifting and I’m committed to working with our street maintenance crew to make sure it has the funding and resources it needs to make sure you, the citizens of Anchorage, receive the timely snow plow response you deserve.”

Still more snow and even some rain are forecast for Anchorage this week. 

Kavitha George is Alaska Public Media’s climate change reporter. Reach her at Read more about Kavitha here.

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