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Sparse Snowfall in Eastern Interior Leaves Little Ground Insulation, Dry Wildfire Fuel

Alaska Climate Research Center

Spring officially begins in a week, though warm weather and lack of snowfall in the eastern Interior makes it seem like the equinox is already here. But it’s a different story on the western side of the state.

Much of what little snow has fallen in the eastern Interior has melted away this week, due to a warm spell that’s set in over the region. Unlike the situation in the western Interior and the southern slope of the Brooks Range.

“In the Koyukuk Valley, there’s been a lot of snow – in some places, double the normal snowpack,” says Rick Thoman, a climate specialist with UAF’s Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy. “In Bettles, (it’s) the greatest snowpack since the winter of 1992-’93.”

But Thoman says snow is sparse in some areas in the central and eastern Interior, especially along the Alaska Range.

“There’s only a foot of snow on the ground at Denali Park headquarters right now,” he said. “The normal for this point in the season would be over 20.”

Thoman says the problem is even more pronounced toward the eastern portion of the Interior, especially around Delta Junction.

“In the Delta area and farther up the Tanana Valley,” he said, “snowfall is quite thin – really, from about Shaw Creek all the way up to Tok and the Northway area.”

Thoman says Tok’s gotten about 30 inches of snow this year, about two-thirds the normal amount. But it’s still about twice as much as some areas around Delta Junction have gotten.

“They are a little better over that far east than in the Delta area,” he added, “but not a lot better.”

Thoman says a weather observer in the nearby town of Big Delta has recorded only about 14-and-a-half inches of snow so far this winter. That’s about a third of the area’s usual snowfall. And Thoman says the lack of ground cover has made buried water lines more susceptible to freezing up, as the frost line drops deeper into the ground.

“This is very typically the time of the year that, if there are going to be problems with freezing pipes underground, the tail end of winter and the spring is when those generally show up.”

Thoman says if the problem persists and precipitation remains well below-normal – and if temperatures remain well-above-normal – it also could lead to an early onset of this year’s wildfire season. State Forestry spokesman Tim Mowry agrees.

“What it really translates to is potentially an earlier start to the earlier fire season, where it’s the dead grass and leaves and all that stuff before the pre-greenup fire season,” he said.

But, Mowry says, it would not be unusual for the area to get more snow and cold weather in these last few weeks leading up to Breakup. “We could get a dump of snow between now and the next month,” he said.

But it doesn’t appear that’s likely to happen soon. And with the National Weather Service predicting the area’s daytime highs to reach in the upper 30s, it’s possible precipitation may fall in a liquid, instead of frosty, form.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.