Alaska weather may get even wackier before it's over

Posted: Sunday, March 02, 2003

UNDATED (AP) -- The wanton warmth that has embraced most of the state since November -- ruining recreation while flirting with a new warm-winter record -- is about to get slapped aside by a prim, old-fashioned Arctic snap.

The National Weather Service issued a special statement Friday warning that a mass of frigid air will likely flood the state from the northwest beginning Monday.

By this time next week, Anchorage could be descending below zero, said meteorologist-in-charge Bob Hopkins.

''March is going to kill us here,'' Hopkins told the Anchorage Daily News. ''The coldest part of winter could be in March.''

The sudden chill would add another twist to one of the weirdest winters yet. A warm Pacific flow that just wouldn't quit turned much of Anchorage's winter precipitation into rain, while melting most of the snow.

And in Fairbanks, with the temperature expected to hover just below freezing on Sunday, a tenth- to a quarter-inch of rain is expected to fall there, just in time for the restart of the 31st annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Since November, a high pressure ridge has repeatedly formed along the West Coast, diverting storms toward Alaska instead of the West Coast. After passing over Alaska, this stream looped southeast across the continent, pounding the East Coast with frigid cold and big snows drawn from the Canadian Arctic.

There's nothing strange about this weather pattern. But this year, after relenting somewhat in January, the pattern stuck. Why isn't well understood. The current El Nino -- a phenomenon of warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures off South America -- probably had something to do with it, Hopkins said. But other factors, like the sea temperatures of the North Pacific and the air currents around the North Pole, also play a role.

In the Interior, Ted Fathauer, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that rain would likely arrive at about 4 p.m. and continue to fall until around midnight. Although the weather is unseasonably warm, he said road surfaces are still cold enough to create some slippery conditions once the moisture arrives.

He said a slight dip in temperatures could greet Iditarod mushers on Monday and that it should be in the lower- to mid-20s at race time.

Despite the expected adverse conditions, Alaska State Troopers reported that the agency will likely wait until the roads significantly deteriorate before issuing a travel advisory.

Fathauer called the expected rain another addition to an already strange winter.

In addition to the potential for rain, heavy snow is plaguing travelers on the Parks Highway. Poor road conditions already exist between Cantwell and Trapper Creek and continued snow through Monday will make the roads worse for drivers, including the 64 mushers who will be traveling north from today's Iditarod ceremonial start.

The whole wacky pattern appears to be dying. A sophisticated computer program that conjures images of the weather five to 10 days ahead has delivered chilling news: deep freeze by next weekend.

''This is forecasting a radical change in the flow pattern, and if it's correct, we'll be getting out our parkas,'' Hopkins said.

There is one consolation. A final wet blast this weekend might bring something white.

''Often when we go through a transition like that, we have a good chance of snow,'' Hopkins said.

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