Alaska’s been in the news this week, but the AP reports are a little misleading. We’re not in the midst of a snow apocalypse all over the state. Here in Fairbanks, we could use more, and we have plenty of fuel. Both the storms and the fuel shortage are localized.

Many people, including news broadcasters, simply do not realize the sheer size of our state. We can have massive snowstorms in one part of the state while another part is dry and frigid and yet another part is sunny, or raining. It is certainly true that the areas surrounding Anchorage, including Valdez and Cordova, are having a snow emergency. It is also true that Nome missed its usual fall fuel delivery due to an unseasonable storm, and a Russian tanker and a Coast Guard icebreaker have just arrived to deliver fuel.  But the two areas of trouble are over 650 miles apart, and under the influence of quite different weather systems.

Cordova and Valdez, and to a lesser extent Anchorage, are all in areas where the ocean water is unfrozen and mountains run right down to the sea. If you see Alaska as a sourdough looking west, this region is just east of the diamond-shaped peninsula jutting south from under his chin. The relatively warm ocean water evaporates readily, providing the energy needed for storms. When the storms are steered into the coast, the snowfall (or at times rainfall) can be intense. This has happened a lot more often than usual this winter, and the area around Prince William Sound has more snow than they can cope with. But the same weather patterns that overwhelm the coastal areas with snow put central Alaska in a precipitation shadow.

The problem in Nome is quite different, being due to sea ice: its lack when a massive storm battered the city and prevented the normal barge delivery of winter fuel, and its presence now. There are no roads to Nome, though there are some in it. Neither is there any sort of fuel pipeline or long-distance power line. Electricity and heat are dependent on fuel oil, which is normally delivered by barge before the sea freezes up. A violent storm prevented that last fall, and now the landfast sea ice is blocking any normal barge delivery. Air delivery is possible, but only as a last resort – it’s expensive!

This past week we’ve been watching a Russian tanker and a Coast Guard icebreaker try to get to Nome, and Friday morning they finally arrived.

Luckily, the current weather forecast for Nome should allow them to offload their fuel, while Cordova is facing a brief period of sunshine. Fairbanks, on the other hand, is facing 40 below temperatures.

Disproof of global warming? No. Remember what I said about the warm water evaporating lots of vapor into the air, and the latent heat of the vapor fueling the storms? It’s hard to connect single weather events with climate, but global change is just as likely to have had a hand in causing the storms.

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