Storms hit region with high winds, snow and then rain
By Peter Loewi
Strong south winds hit 71 miles per hour in St. Michael, Shishmaref had its sea ice blown away and the Nome Airport saw 0.64 inches of precipitation – mostly in the form of rain - last weekend. The storm that hit on Saturday, Dec. 18 and continued all day Sunday brought the total precipitation for December thus far to 2.04 inches. This combination of melted snow and rain is twice the normal amount, and with more snow in the forecast, it’s likely this will be the wettest December in Nome since 1931.
“The wide fluctuation of the temperatures has set us up for an interesting end of the year,” says Bob Ten Eyck of the National Weather Service in Nome. The Bering Strait region got what is called a “Pineapple Express,” an atmospheric river event where moisture builds up around Hawai’i and the flow pattern comes from the south. This is what explains the warm weather and the almost 60-degree temperature change from the week before.
“The storms late last week signaled the change in the cold weather that had prevailed since early November with just a couple brief interruptions,” said Alaska Climate Specialist at UAF, Rick Thoman.
“The Saturday to Sunday storm was associated with deep south to southwest winds at all levels of the atmosphere, bringing air from the Pacific Ocean east of Japan right into western Alaska. As a result, it was extremely warm (for the season) through a deep layer of atmosphere.”
These kinds of swings from warm to cold or cold to warm is what leads to freezing rain, creating dangerous road conditions that even heavy equipment was no match for. Nome City Manager Glenn Steckman said the road graders were sliding on the roads. “We were dealing with freezing rain. We were having problems with our equipment sliding,” he said. Because it was a challenge to operate them safely, Nome Public Works took those vehicles off the roads and focused on sanding the ice instead of plowing the snow. “Our crews were out trying to make sure everything would be ready for Monday morning,” Steckman said.
Despite very slick conditions on Sunday, the Nome Police Department did not receive any accident calls. That may have to do with the weekend, said Chief of Police Mike Heintzelman, and if it had been in the middle of the week with more traffic, maybe there would have been accidents. Nomeites posted photos on social media of cars which had slid off the road, but there were no reports of serious injuries.
Conditions across the region were similarly dangerous. Vice Mayor of St. Michael Flora Matthias said that the wind speeds reached 71 mph, only slightly less powerful than a category 1 hurricane. A window was shattered in a home, a garage roof blew off and the quarantine trailer froze. No injuries were reported.
Shishmaref didn’t see any significant damage, but much of the ice on the Chukchi Sea side was blown out, leaving mostly open water.
Teller saw elevated water levels, but there was no need to evacuate.
In Golovin, the runway flooded.
Unalakleet saw water levels of 8.18 feet on the slough side, just a fraction of an inch off of the ten-year high of 8.19 feet, recorded in August 2019. The NOAA sensor station there, however, only saw 5.5 feet, so the location of the sensor is incredibly important.
Ten Eyck with the National Weather Service office in Nome wishes there were more sensors to accurately track and record weather data. “If you had the money to spend on this stuff, it would make our job a whole lot easier,” he said.
Such forms of data collection can be useful, especially when understaffed. If one cloud floats over the sensor on an otherwise sunny day, the sensor could report the day as “cloudy,” when local staff would know otherwise. Increasing the number of sensors in a region can help track changes both in time and in place. Ten Eyck mentioned that he would add one in Safety and one between White Mountain and Koyuk.
Increased reporting on the weather will invariably lead to better records, and the weekend’s storm was definitely one for the records. “Climate observations in the U.S. have never attempted to separate the rain portion of precipitation to the frozen portion,” Thoman told the Nugget via email, “However, through brute-force filtering of December days with high precipitation, low snow and temperatures above freezing, we find that there were at least two events in December with more rain than this: December 10, 1932 had 0.94 inches of precipitation and no snow at all, and December 5, 1972 had 0.62 inch of precipitation and only a trace of snow.”
As of press time on the Dec. 21, the National Weather Service in Alaska’s forecast shows a similar series of storms coming. Though slightly cooler, snow and freezing rain are likely, with highs just below 32°F. Thoman added Tuesday morning that the incredibly active weather pattern will continue, with significant snow starting Wednesday and ending early Thursday morning. The forecast predicts snow to start up again Saturday morning and a chance of rain. Rain/drizzle persists into Sunday morning then changes back to snow. Another storm is possible the middle of next week.
“Sea ice extent has already decreased significantly and there is the potential for this to be an unprecedented sea ice retreat in the Bering Sea for this point in the season,” said Thoman.