Monday, February 13, 2012

Weather, Light, and Temperature at Latitude 61

Storm coming in fast
(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura)

One joke I've heard about Alaska weather is the defensive line, "We do, too, have four seasons:  June, July, August, and winter!"  Read below to see if you think that is true or close to it.

Here in South Central Alaska, it is not as warm and rainy as South East Alaska (Juneau) and it lacks the extreme temperature fluctuations of the Interior (Fairbanks). Naturally, any place with as many mountains and bodies of water as Alaska has a huge variety of micro-climates. Anchorage, for example, is warmed by the Cook Inlet and gets only about 5 or 6 feet of snow per winter, and is protected from deep temperature drops.  Where we are, inland, summer temperatures range from 50 - 70 degrees and winter temperatures can sink to -40 (but the coldest I've ever felt was -30). It starts to snow in October and my impression, although we haven't yet spent a whole winter there, is that normal winter temperatures tend to range between -20 and +20. March is my favorite winter month, when it is sunny and the snow sparkles as it crystalizes when the afternoon temperatures rise above 32. Over the four winters we have partially spent there, snow depth has varied from 5 (winter of 2010-11) to 14 feet (winter of 2011-12), depending less on accumulation than on whether the snow warmed up enough times (or if it rained) to compact significantly. 

Spring is called Break Up, as the snow starts to melt in April and the lakes thaw.  During this period, the sunny areas are muddy while the shady spots on the north sides of obstructions retain pockets of snow.  Important to Bush residents like us is the duration of Break Up (and Freeze Up in the fall) when the lakes and rivers are not safe for planes to land (or snow machines or boats to cross).  In our experience, Break Up lasts for about six weeks.  One year, we waited until April 6 to leave.  As we walked through the snow on the lake out to the ski plane, our footfalls filled with water!  Mid-air, the pilot cranked the skis up in order to land on wheels in Anchorage, which warms earlier than we do, thanks to the Cook Inlet.  Had we not left that day, we surely would have been stranded for another five or six weeks, when the lake ice finally shrinks to a floating donut and then breaks up as the wind pushes it around the lake.  One cold spring, my husband was stuck in Anchorage for four days in mid-May, waiting for the lake to thaw enough to safely land.  But a stubborn ice island remained on the lake, moving enough to endanger a plane. Finally, one of the intrepid pilots decided to take a chance when the prevailing wind was likely to push the ice to the far end of the lake.  Unfortunately, by the time they circled the lake, the ice had floated back to block the dock!  Our full time neighbor got into his motor boat and harpooned the ice and hauled away a safe distance so the plane could land.  Clever, can-do Alaskan spirit! 

The adjacent mountains remain covered with snow in early June, with the level receding uphill until the last patches remain in shady, northern facing spots in August. Virtually every summer, our lake is too cold to swim in, but if it doesn't rain too much in July, it is a comfortable temperature for dangling one's feet from a fishing float, or a quick dunk after a hot afternoon's labor.  Normal summer temperatures range from low 50s to low 70s, but in the summer of 2011, we had several unseasonably warm days that topped 80 causing all my broccoli and bok choy to bolt (flower).
Autumn View
At spring and fall solstice, we have natural light about 12 hours per day. Mid-summer we have about 20 hours of daylight (the sun increasing or decreasing about 7 minutes a day on either side of that date). The sun doesn't travel in a straight line that far north.  Rather, it traces a "C" or "J" shape trajetory during the day, which makes me think of halibut (C) and salmon or pike (J) shaped fishing hooks.  Even the middle of the night is not totally dark, but rather a deep, dark blue. The sunsets, though late, are often spectacular, particularly if one of the state's active volcanoes has spewed some particulate matter into the air.  In the early morning, we'll often see an alpen glow effect on the trees across the lake that renders all the trees on the far shore an astonishing buttercup yellow.  (See photo on gardening blog)  In mid-winter, the duration of natural light is about 4-5 hours, but with the surrounding mountains, it can seem like less, and the Northern Lights are often visible. A lot of people in Alaska use those S.A.D. lights during the winter to stave off sun-starved depression, and every Alaskan I know is impressively accomplished at some winter hobby or sport and really appreciates what the winter offers, even if they also appreciate the cheap Alaska Air flights to Hawaii.
Many friends in the South have said that they would hate to live in a cold climate again.  But in many ways, I think our life in Bush Alaska gives us the best part of winter without the worst aspects.  In northern cities, I tend to be nervous about fishtaling on icy roads, or slipping and sliding in a parking lot or driveway.  The black, polluted snow piled up along roadsides in February/March is so unattractive.  Trying to start a car when the oil has thickened up was always an anxious couple of minutes.  Occasional periods of being stranded at home without power due to trees falling on power lines or strong winter storms can leave neighborhoods feeling hungry and vulnerable. 

At our cabin, we have none of that.  Since we aren't on a road system, the snow is pristine white, like a Christmas card photo. (The only travelers we see are occasional snow machiners and dog mushers.)  We maintain months worth of pantry supplies and weeks worth of perishables, so I don't worry about access to supermarkets during storms.  Because our heat and light and cooking are by woodstove and propane, for which we have years of inventory, and since we have no power lines or plumbing lines, we don't worry about home infrastructure breakage that concern city dwellers.  Certainly a warm home is welcome in any cold climate, city or country, but there is something viscerally satisfying about smelling the evocative birch smoke as as you walk home after an afternoon hike, crunching on the crisp snow, and pass the trees to see the smoke emanating from a little log cabin illuminated by yellow propane lights and a flickering woodstove.  Once inside, the cabin smells warm and inviting, with a pot of stew or soup or rice and beans on top of the woodstove.

Alaska is tectonically active.  When digging in the garden, but even more when digging deeper to bury cables or dig an outhouse or cold hole, we see layers of ash.  Although the really active volcanoes are in the Aleutian island chain, hundreds of miles away, recent eruptions by Mt. Spur and Mt. Redoubt on the mainland have contributed their ash to my garden.  I have felt earthquakes each of the past two summers.  Though neither caused any damage, they were startling.  One occurred about 6 pm.  Seven of us were sitting on the upper deck when the earth shook briefly and violently up and then down, like someone shaking the wrinkles out of wet laundry.  Last summer, I was awakened two mornings by a rolling side to side motion.  I'm told that log cabins are better suited to rolling through an earthquake than a building built of brick or siding. Certainly with all of our outbuildings containing seasonal clothes and food, should one building fall, we'd be able to create food, shelter, and warmth from the others.  Should all of them suffer, we'd start building again with the materials on hand and the skills we are slowly acquiring.

I love the rapid changes in weather here.  Each day, and each time of day, is special and worthy of note, bringing seasonal migrations of various yard and lake "neighbors" for company, sequences of plants for seasonal foods and medicines, and a "to-do" list of projects, challenges, delights. I've shed the "manana, manana" attitude I sometimes had in the South, where weather remained predictable for weeks and even months at a time and where a store was near at hand for something I could always do "later."   Living here has increased my appreciation for simple pleasures, and given me a bittersweet awareness of the passage of time and a humility about how small and brief a role I play in the broad scheme of things. 

(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura)

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