Forget the ‘polar vortex’ — how is Alaska dealing with its heat wave?

(Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch)
(Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch)
Sure, the rest of the U.S. might be locked in the grips of yet another “polar vortex,” shutting down schools and causing a run on better-insulated homes. Usually, when the Lower 48 starts complaining about its annual “winterpocalypse” cold snap, we Alaskans can just chuckle, shake our heads knowingly and get back to cross-country skiing at 10 below.

But much of Alaska lately has been downright tropical. So much so that, for a moment, Homer was recently warmer than almost anywhere else in the U.S. No one would argue that warm weather has been wreaking some havoc — like rerouting or even canceling world-famous sled dog races, shutting down snowmachiners in the Chugach National Forest, causing massive, road-closing avalanches near Valdez and making some roads more slippery than Chris Christie answering a question about traffic jams — on Alaska’s normal wintertime routine.

According to the National Weather Service, the Alaska communities of Nome, Seward, Talkeetna and Homer all experienced their all-time high temperatures for January in recent days. The state even matched its highest-ever January temperature on Monday, when the mercury hit 62 in Port Alsworth. Roads in Fairbanks were a sloppy mess after temperatures spiked into the 40s in the Interior last week, only to then drop back down below freezing. Heavy rain in Southeast caused flooding and mudslides on Prince of Wales Island.

Given that we turn and smirk at the Lower 48 when they start whimpering about a dusting of snow in their front yards and closing schools before the mercury has even dropped below freezing, perhaps we need to suck it up and look on the bright side, lest the tables be turned on we Alaskans, so proud of our hardy, adaptive nature.

So with that, here are some upsides to our recent Alaska heat wave.

Save on heating

Warm weather is paying off for some Alaskans in the form of lower heating bills and electric bills. In Fairbanks, where the cost of heating is about four times higher than in Anchorage, the January meltdown means that people saved real money this year. The spring-like temperatures meant that oil consumption was down by several gallons a day, knocking $20 or more off the daily oil bill. For the wood-burning crowd, there was a welcome break from the normal routine of constant care and feeding– the wood stove appetite knows no bounds in a normal January. Not this time. The result is that thousands of wood piles may last until spring. But before we get carried away, let’s remember that a frigid February is not out of the question. – Dermot Cole

Have a cookout

Fire up the barbie! It’s clear from the smell of the air in Anchorage lately that many of those who are usually shut in for the winter have been getting out, or at least out onto the deck or patio. The smell of grilling salmon and searing meat is in the air. Why cook indoors when the temperature outside is in the 40s or, on some south-facing decks, the 50s or warmer? It’s not quite sunbathing weather, but for a midwinter cookout it will more than do. – Craig Medred

A respite from shoveling

Just when it looked like the snow on the roof needed shoveling, along comes two weeks of mostly above-freezing temperatures to melt a good portion of it down to shingles. No need to pull any aging and underused muscles. No need to give up a weekend of watching NFL playoff games for backbreaking shoveling. No need to risk sliding off the roof into a monster snow pile. Now if I can only figure out what to do about the expanding glacier created by refrozen roof runoff. – Mike Campbell

Clear roads, happy drivers

Alaska drivers are proud of their winter driving abilities, able to swiftly navigate treacherous roads within weeks of the first winter snowfall. While cities in the Lower 48 shut down over an inch of snow, that’s nothing but a sprinkling for Alaska drivers and road crews. That said, those ice-covered roads are mostly a thing of the past these days on many of the state’s main byways — the avalanche-covered Richardson Highway exempted, of course. With all the snow and ice mostly melted and gone — save for a few still-slippery side streets — Alaskans are cruising. Those who put off changing their snow tires are the big winners this season, though not to be outdone are the car washes, who are undoubtedly getting a boost from the muddy cars making their way through local laser washes in Anchorage these days. – Suzanna Caldwell

Dress the kids in shorts…

Every parent of young children knows the trauma associated with hats, gloves, jackets, winter bibs and boots. Alaska is a multi-layering nightmare for the kids, who would rather be naked most of the time anyway. And it’s a six-month ordeal for the parents, forced as they sometimes are to wrestle screaming kids to the ground so they can zip, tuck and strap them into enough polyurethane to keep them alive. One parental low point for me came a few years ago after we stuffed our deranged 3-year-old daughter into long johns and a snow suit for a 15-degree cross-country ski. After 20 minutes of shrieking, she was finally bundled and ready to go. Then she peed. And that was the end of an outing that never began. These days, with temperatures soaring, the grief associated with gear is gone. Forgot the hat? Who cares? Wet gloves? Doesn’t matter. Can’t find the bibs? So what? Our 4-year-old son is wearing shorts. Our now 7-year-old daughter prefers short sleeves. Now, if we just get them to stop fighting… – Alex DeMarban

…and dress yourself in heels

The warmer weather and clearer sidewalks have provided much-needed respite for Alaska fashionistas used to doing the old wintertime switcheroo — wearing boots for the morning commute, dress shoes tucked under an arm or into a handbag, ready for a quick change underneath the desk upon arrival at the office. Boots have hardly been necessary in the past few days, meaning indoor shoes have become all-day shoes, freeing up that extra hand to hold a latte. Given the ice still glazing some sections of Anchorage pavement, flats or a low stacked heel might be the most sensible choice, but for stiletto lovers who are confident in their agility and aren’t afraid to risk a twisted ankle, these have been days to carpe concrete. – Maia Nolan-Partnow

Good news for wildlife

The warm weather can be both a blessing and a menace for one of Alaska’s trademark ungulates, the moose. The big animals, which can weigh as much as 1,600 pounds and stand nearly 6 feet tall, may have more dining options, as pussy willows are already starting to bloom, indicating tree sap may be flowing, offering a change to the animal’s usual diet of winter willow, birch and other twigs. And they won’t have to expend as much energy trying to stay warm during a deep freeze or walk through deep snow. The downside? Lack of snow means they are harder to see. Without it, their dark brown coats don’t stand out. And icier back roads mean cars will likely have a more difficult time avoiding an errant moose. Already, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is hearing lots of reports of moose about town with broken legs — a sign more are getting involved in vehicle collisions. – Jill Burke

Forget skiing — go biking

​Ski conditions have been marginal to horrible. Skiers on the trails have encountered rock-hard ice, muddy slush, thawed moose poop and other unpleasantness. But winter mountain bikers have been having a good time, even along roadsides, cyclists are reporting on the Alaska Ski Trail Reports forum. Conditions in south Anchorage “felt like April,” one writer said — just in time for Bicycle Commuters of Alaska’s fifth-annual Winter Bike Fest. Events include organized 30- and 50-kilometer rides through the city on Feb. 9. BCA is encouraging signups for this year’s Winter City Urban Randonnee. “We can’t promise it will be wintry but it will be fun,” the organization says on its website. –Yereth Rosen

Alaska: Finally fashion forward

Much has been debated over Alaska’s fashion scene. Some would argue that it’s nonexistent, some that it’s burgeoning, and others who could care less either way. Regardless, Alaskans have always been held back when it comes to wearing seasonal fashion during the actual season. With fall and spring mostly shoulder seasons here and often far too cold to actually consider the lightly-clad fashions released those times of year, we rarely get the chance to be en vogue. Not this year. With warm temps, feel free to rock exposed midriffs, mesh everything and romantic lace. Puddles still abound, so make sure the style goes well with Xtratufs. – Suzanna Caldwell

Related Links:

Canada:Tiny Arctic town’s weather site approaches 1 millionth hit, CBC News

Finland:Cold weather causes dazzling light displays in Finland, Yle news

Sweden:Weather deals double blow to Sweden’s timber industry, Radio Sweden,

United States:Weather changes disrupt subsistence hunt in Arctic Alaska, Alaska Dispatch


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