Back-to-back storms cripple business as usual in Nome
Back-to-back blizzards with tons of snow and high winds have hammered Nome since late January and the accumulation of a total of 76 inches of snow is now beginning to take a toll on residents. Unless one lives within walking distance to one’s place of employment, for nearly two weeks commuting to work or school has been difficult, even for hardy Nomeites.
Interim City Manager John Handeland reports that the city’s public works crew has been working nonstop to clear city roads. “With multiple back-to-back blizzards, we are inundated,” he wrote in an email. “Despite extended days and weekends worked, the piles are accumulating. The City has brought in reinforcements from the contracting community to help rid it.”
Between Wednesday and Monday, the snow removal crew has moved 441 truckloads of snow, or 8,500 cubic yards of snow. In an all hands on deck effort, the crew of nine public works employees is working between 10 and 13 hours a day, every day. Finance Director Julie Liew stated in an email that the City hired contractors to help with the snow removal. “However, some of them are busy with helping the state road crew with snow removal,” she wrote. At times visibility was down to zero in complete whiteout conditions and the city work crews marked snow berms with orange spray to alert drivers and guide traffic.
The state Department of Transportation road crew also hasn’t had a break in weeks. Since last week, the crew of four to five worked 10-hour days. According to DOT spokeswoman Caitlyn Frye, they worked 40 to 50 hours over the weekend, with three extra local rental trucks hauling snow. “Highways has a crew of five operators and a foreman, but we have only had four people on shift to cover seven days for the past three weeks,” said Frye in an email to the Nugget. “Last year was a big snow year also, but this past four to six weeks has been a unique array of snow events creating another set of challenges for both the DOT&PF and the City of Nome road maintenance crews.”
The DOT’s priorities are to keep open the Nome-Beltz highway from town to Nome-Beltz, Bering Street, Seppala Avenue and Front Street. They are using a combination of graders, a snowblower and a dozer. Once those roads are clear, the road crew tackles the Nome-Teller Highway to the Snake River bridge, the Nome-Council Road and the Beam Road to Dexter and Banner Creek. Most residents of the outlying areas have resorted to commute to town by snowmachine.
Although the schools were open Wednesday, an early release day, weather conditions deteriorated significantly and busses couldn’t run on the early release schedule. Interim Superintendent of Nome Public Schools Jamie Burgess told the Nugget that elementary students were held an hour past their regular (not early release) time, the high school students were held a half-hour past their regular (not early release) time, and the junior high students were released at their regular (not early release) time. “The bus drivers did a wonderful job of getting all the children home in approximately the same time frame as they would on any day,” Burgess said. “All of our children were either kept safe and warm at their school, or released into the custody of their parents when picked up.” Given the reliable service by road crews, school busses have been able to run most days, but students residing outside of school bus routes were unable to make it to school more often than not. When weather gets too extreme, the schools call snow days, which has been done three times so far this year and all in the last three weeks.
The storms also prevented scheduled service of freighters reaching Nome with groceries. While Hanson’s managed to stay open throughout the storminess, restocking was an issue. At times, the shelves that usually bear bananas, fresh produce, meat and milk were empty. However, a freighter made it in Sunday and supplies came in Tuesday.
John Handeland, the city manager and lifelong Nome resident, recalled winters growing up in Nome. “The over abundance of snow this year reminds me of my childhood, when the high schoolers would walk us grade school children home through the drifts.” He added that while it is “a little disconcerting to shovel only to have to repeat, I think we’re fortunate to have snow and not hurricanes.”
Rick Thoman, Alaska Climate Specialist with the UAF Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, said in a phone interview with The Nome Nugget that the region has been in a stormy pattern since Jan. 25. Just a few years ago, cold, crisp and sunny winter days gave way to blizzards only to turn cold, crisp and sunny again. These past two years show a different pattern. Lows seem to be stuck in a rut in the central Bering Sea. November 2018 saw the lowest sea ice on record, Thoman said. Ocean temperatures in the Bering Sea are up to 3°F warmer than normal. While December and January was cold and saw some sea ice formation, the ice was thin. When the stormy pattern in January began, the sea ice was easily either destroyed, melted or was pushed northward. Commenting on a satellite photo taken Feb. 24, that shockingly shows open water from Hooper Bay all the way to St. Lawrence Island and open water patches north of the Seward Peninsula, at Chukotka and even north of Shishmaref, Thoman said “that should be bright white all the way to the Bering Strait.” The National Weather Service posted a special weather statement from Pitka’s Point all the way north to the Chukchi Sea Coast, Kobuk and Noatak valleys that warned of elevated water levels from Wednesday through Friday. Winter storm warnings seem to be a constant as they are extended to last from Monday, then Tuesday and now until 6 a.m. Thursday. “Heavy snow will continue into this evening before diminishing late tonight. Expect heavy snow to develop again Wednesday afternoon and continue into Thursday morning. Plan on difficult travel conditions. Additional snow accumulations of 4 to 8 inches, with localized amounts up to 12 inches, are expected through Thursday morning,” the warning reads.
Winds created by the pressure difference between the low and a high pressure weather system blow from the south and instead of blowing across a white ice surface, they now hammer the thin ice into pieces, leaving open ocean water and thus picking up moisture that comes down in form of extreme snowfall in Nome and the region. The ice is thinner, the ocean temperatures are warmer and the winds higher. All signs predicted by climate experts that warned in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports of the impacts of a warming climate on weather and therefore on the environment, animals, fish, birds and people. Thoman added that February shaped up to be the windiest month of any month since 2001. Peak winds were measured Feb. 20 with 48 mph. “The winds were above 30 mph every day except for one,” said Thoman. There were only two days this month below the normal wind speed, which is 10 mph, as the average wind speed was 17 mph. While this weather pattern seems to continue for a while, Thoman also offered a glimpse of hope. He said that longterm computer models and expert interpretation of them suggest a pattern change in the second week of March.