Blizzardy March buries Nome in lots of snow
For four years in row now, March has failed to deliver glorious weather for spring outings, safe travels and happy hunting. Instead, March has come to be synonymous with dangerous weather conditions that throw a wrench in springtime outdoor activities.
These observations are backed up by data and interpreted by Rick Thoman, climate specialist at the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at UAF.
For four years, the month of March has received above normal snowfall. The back-to-back blizzards that halted business as usual in Nome caused school to be canceled, businesses closing early or not opening at all and organizations sending their employees home.
Starting on March 3-4 a snowstorm dumped four inches on Nome, with a peak wind recorded at 53 mph. In the middle of the snow storm the National Weather Service’s Automated Observation System at the Nome office near the airport that collects data such as temperature, wind, dew point and precipitation broke down and didn’t record any data from the evening of March 4 until a National Weather Service technician fixed it on March 9. Thoman was relying on data collected by the FAA during that period of time. He added that the system was out for the better part of March in 2020 as well and data from the NOAA tide gauge at Nome’s port jetty was utilized. Since the automated system was out of commission, the storm that pummeled Nome from March 6-8 is estimated to have dumped 10 to 12 inches of snow on Nome, with a peak wind of around 44 mph.
The National Weather Service, while reducing staff in remote offices such as Nome and Utqiavik, also ceased to measure data for snow fall and snow depth. The radio station KNOM volunteered to collect the information each day.
Just as Nomeites were digging out, the next storm arrived on March 13-14 with 3-4 inches of snow and peak winds at 47 mph. Two days later, two more inches of snow fell, without significant winds, though.
On March 23-24, three to four inches fell, causing briefly blizzard conditions with peak winds at 39 mph. Blizzard conditions are defined as visibility of a quarter mile or less, winds of 35 mph or more and a duration of at least three hours.
On March 27-28, a bona fide blizzard raged for more than a day, bringing approximately 8 inches of snow in strong winds that peaked at 47 mph on March 28.
Going into April, the streak of blizzards was not over. The traditional Easter egg hunt was moved inside the ANB as April 2-3 brought five inches of snow, followed by a day of blue skies but strong winds causing ground blizzard conditions. The winds blew at 40 mph in town, in Dexter gust reached up to 54 mph.
So, why do we have these kinds of spring blizzards?
Thoman said some of it is bad luck, but some is due to the lack of sea ice in the central Bering Sea. The southern extend of the sea ice did not reach beyond St. Matthew Island, leaving much of the Bering Sea open. As cold air hangs over Chukotka, and warmer temperatures hover over areas that used to be covered by sea ice, all the open water allows for additional moisture to feed the storms and dump the moisture on the first land they hit: the Southern Seward Peninsula. So much for snowfall.
As for the winds, sea ice or the lack thereof, also plays a role. The velocity of winds is determined by the depth of a storm, or the difference between the cold and warm air and thus the pressure difference of a storm system. The more difference, the stronger the winds. And again, with the decline in sea ice, the region can brace for a trend of stronger and wetter storms in the future. “Historically you wouldn’t expect these strong storms in March, but historically there was also expansive sea ice and colder air over the ice,” said Thoman.
While the Easter Egg Hunt could be moved inside, and the Kotzebue snowmachine race could be squeezed in between storms, multi-day events such as the Kobuk 440 sled dog race were impacted by this new reality of wetter and stormier spring weather.