The toll of winter is revealing itself and in some places cryospheric conditions still exist


As of mid-April, despite having a day length four hours longer than Miami, central Alaska is still part of the cryosphere.

Looking through my photos, I see snow on the ground during a high school running competition on September 27th. Patches of this snowfall have hidden from the sun all winter, surviving on north-facing slopes.

Over the past seven months, our reflectivity and slipperiness have been high. Such is life in Fairbanks, Alaska, even in a warming world.

Thinking back to the long winter, there was an extra-dramatic event here, when it rained over an inch on Boxing Day. This water splashing on supercooled surfaces – like asphalt roads and the surface of snow – turned into ice. Our covered garage collapsed; I still haven’t processed it.

Although some of this ice has melted or directly sublimated into gas, helping to make our roads less shocking, a layer of ice remains in the snowpack like glass.

It was difficult for the moose, who received this blow right in the shins. They fell on our crowded snowmobile and auto trails right after the December rain and never quite left them.

Since the moose need to eat the equivalent of a large garbage bag full of frozen twigs to survive each night, the ice and deep snow that impeded their movements was significant. Biologists won’t know the full effect for some time, but Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials have already canceled next season’s antlerless moose hunt in the Fairbanks area.

Also, just after the Christmas ice storm, University of Alaska ecologist Knut Kielland speculated hard times for owls and other vole-dependent creatures that live below the surface of the snow. With this layer of ice preventing small creatures from scurrying over the top, how would an owl get its food?

This, too, can be played out; I haven’t heard a boreal owl sing this winter.

Mark Ross, who works for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at Creamer’s Field in Fairbanks, said people delivered three boreal owls this spring that perished while trailing around their bird feeders. He weighed the robin-sized birds and found that each was malnourished.

But our above-average winter snowfall is maturing and waning now. The scent molecules released from dog manure, no longer locked in by the cold, float through the air.

Amid this cooler than average April, the rivers are still mostly white ribbons meandering through Alaska. But the sun has more to say about it every day.

Our home river, the Tanana, which meanders 550 miles near Canada to the village of Tanana on the Yukon River, is surrounded by a winter snowpack 220% of its normal April size.

Watersheds across the entire Yukon River watershed have at least 150% above normal snow accumulation stored on slopes and plains.

It is too early to tell if residents of riverside villages will experience flooding from ice jams or the preferred, mild “thermal breakup” this spring. The weather for the next few weeks will be decisive. The worst case scenario: very cold weather followed by extreme heat.

Whatever happens, the toll of winter will reveal itself very soon. One thing I know: I’ll forget the cryosphere when I hear a Townsend’s warbler, fresh from Costa Rica, sing from the top of a spruce tree.


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