Does it snow in Alaska? Of course it does. But the reality of the snowfall amount that Alaska receives may be far different from the popular concept of snow in Alaska.
Many people conceive of Alaska as a barren land where it snows constantly in massive amounts and where everyone lives in igloos. Such a concept makes Alaska sound like a cold and white land.
In reality Alaska has more lakes, rivers, and green trees than does any state in the U.S. The state is intensely green and rich much of the year. But the rainfall total and the snowfall total may be much less than you may think.
Alaska Snowfall Totals
Here are some average annual precipitation and snowfall totals for a cross section of Alaska.
Anchorage — 15.37″ precip —- 69.0″ snowfall
Barrow ——- 4.67″ ———– 28.0″
Fairbanks —- 10.37″ ———– 68.0″
Homer ——- 24.93″ ———– 58.0″
Juneau —— 52.86″ ———– 101.0″
McGrath —– 16.18″ ———– 93.0″
Nome ——– 15.64″ ———– 56.0″
Valdez ——- 61.50″ ———– 320.0″
By comparison Buffalo, N.Y., receives an average of 80″ to 100″ of snow per year. Some sections of upstate New York, similarly affected by their proximity to the Great Lakes, receive an average of 150″ to 200″ of snowfall yearly. Hooker, N.Y., received 466″ of snow during the winter of 1976-1977.
Minneapolis, Minnesota, received their heaviest seasonal snowfall total of 98″ during the winter of 1983-1984.
As you can see from the Alaska totals above, most of Alaska is relatively dry, receiving less that 20″ of precipitation annually. The southcentral and southeastern coastal areas receive far greater precipitation.
Far northern Alaska receives precipitation totals typical of a desert. Notice Barrow’s annual total of only 4.67″ of moisture. Of course, most of that total falls in the form of snow. Due to the ice beneath the soil and the lack of intense drying sunshine runoff and evaporation are minimal. That’s why northern Alaska is not a dry desert despite the small amounts of precipitation.
Alaska Snowfall Records
It’s always interesting to hear about extremes and they can certainly be found in Alaska. For example, Thompson Pass, a popular extreme ski and snowboard area north of Valdez, once received a record 974.5″ of snow during the winter of 1952-1953.
Thompson Pass recorded 62″ of snow during one single 24 hour period in December, 1955. During February, 1953, Thompson Pass received a record 297.9″ of snow. That’s almost 25 feet of snow in just one month!
The deepest recorded snow pack in Alaska, and the deepest in all of North America, occurred at Wolverine Glacier on the Kenai Peninsula during the winter of 1976-1977. The depth was 356″. That’s packed, condensed snow. Almost 30 feet deep!
By comparison, Barrow, in the dry north, received a record minimum amount of snow during the winter of 1935-1936 of only 3″.
Here are a couple of other extremes for total precipitation. Montague Island in 1976 received a record 332.29″ of precipitation. That’s almost an inch of rain per day! On the other hand, Barrow received only 1.61″ of precipitation during all of 1935.
Alaska stores an immense amount of fresh water in its glaciers. An amazing 75% of the world’s fresh water is held in glaciers worldwide and Alaska holds more than its fair share.
Alaska has more than 5,000 glaciers, covering in excess of 100,000 square miles. Alaska has more glaciers than the entire rest of the world combined, excluding the ice fields of Antarctica and Greenland.
Valdez, the Switzerland of the North
Valdez lies on the southcentral coast of Alaska and receives an average of over 300″ of snow yearly. Typically, there are 6 foot drifts of snow on city rooftops. The canyon a few miles north of Valdez is home to several frozen waterfalls and makes Valdez a world-class destination for ice climbers.
Thompson Pass, further north of Valdez, boasts some of the best helicopter accessed extreme skiing and snowboarding terrain in all of North America. No wonder Valdez has been called “the Switzerland of the North.”
Each year Valdez holds a Winter Carnival. During the period of the 1990 Winter Carnival the year’s snowfall passed the 500″ mark. As part of the winter celebration the city showed the movie “Back to the Beach” on a 20 foot by 18 foot “screen” which they had carved from a snow bank. Talk about an outdoor drive-in theatre!
What is Snow?
Snow is crystalline frozen ice and the size and shape of the crystals depend on the temperature of their formation and the amount of water vapor present during formation.
Pure snow crystals are hexagonal, six sided. The basic water molecule consists of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen and forms a triangle of three equal sides. During crystallization each new ice crystal bud is formed at a 60 degree angle. Crystallization continues until 6 of these triangles are complete. As the crystal falls through the atmosphere it becomes bigger and bigger and its six sided structure becomes the framework for more complex snowflakes.
Common forms of snowflakes include stars, needles, flat planes, columns, capped columns, dendrites, and irregular groups. Some snowflakes can be as large as 1″ in diameter.
For one of the most interesting human stories about snowflake research, consider that of Wilson Bentley. He acquired the nickname, “Snowflake” Bentley because he was the first person to photograph a single snow crystal in 1885. He studied over 5000 snowflakes and declared that no two snowflakes are exactly alike, a quote that has been passed on from generation to generation anonymously ever since.
In 1931, the year that Snowflake Bentley died, he published a book entitled, Snow Crystals. The book contained over 2400 of Snowflake Bentley’s images.
How Many Eskimo Words Are There For Snow?
It has been said that there are 52 words in the Eskimo, Inuit, or Yupik language for snow. It’s also been said that there are 21 words, and it’s also been said that there are over 400. Where does the truth lie?
The idea that since snow is so important in the lives of northern native peoples that there must be a multitude of words to describe it has attained the level of a myth. The truth of the matter is that there are probably about as many Eskimo words for snow as there are English words for snow.
Alaska Climate Changes
According to Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, “Alaska is harder hit by global climate change than any place in the world.” Global warming has been a trend for many years, but very few places show as many consequences of the trend as does Alaska. The average temperature has risen nearly 7 degrees in the past 30 years.
The changes due to a warming climate mean, for example, that the permafrost in Fairbanks and other towns is no longer permanent. Land has been slumping due to the melting permafrost and hydraulic jacks are needed on many buildings to keep them level. Further north, in Barrow, there are now mosquitoes where there once were none.
At the coastal village of Shishmaref increasingly higher water has been eroding away the land beneath the village buildings. The village may have to relocate further inland.
Spruce bark beetles have killed 4 million acres of white spruce forests on the picturesque Kenai Peninsula, the largest devastation due to insects ever experienced in North America. The beetles have been able to reproduce at twice their normal rate due to the higher summertime temperatures. The dead trees represent a huge fire hazard around numerous populated areas and prime recreational sections are threatened.
Glaciers have been receding at an incredible rate. Portage Glacier, south of Anchorage, has retreated so much in the past 20 years that it is no longer visible from the visitor’s center. Columbia Glacier on Prince William Sound is currently the world’s fastest moving glacier, retreating 80 to 115 feet per day. It has receded more that 6 miles since 1982.
There are still plenty of glaciers and significant snow in Alaska, but changes are occurring at an increased rate and will have worldwide effects.