Winter weather up in the air

Above normal precipitation, temps forecast

Posted: Tuesday, August 21, 2001

As summer winds down and the snowbirds turn south, the thoughts of full-time Alaskans turn to the inevitable, perennial question: What will the winter be like?

This past winter had its share of surprises.

A March report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that oversees the National Weather Service and climate studies, said, "... the average statewide winter temperature in Alaska was the warmest since records began in 1918."

The upcoming winter may be mild, as well.

Huug van den Dool, from NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, said via e-mail the fall temperatures for the state are likely to be within normal ranges, but in 2002, January, February and March, residents likely will see above-normal temperatures and precipitation.

For the central Kenai Peninsula, however, 2001 was not a record-breaker.

The official 2001 weather statistics for Kenai, gathered at the municipal airport under the auspices of the Federal Aviation Administration, showed an average January temperature of 27.13 degrees. The mean temperature for the month, based on records back to 1950, is 12.15 degrees.

The warmest January report at Kenai was in 1981, when the mean of 31.63 degrees was near the thawing point. The years 1977 and 1985 also had warmer weather in January than 2001.

In contrast, the coldest January, in 1971, had a mean temperature of minus 4.77.

The 2001 temperatures for February, March and April also were above normal at Kenai, but less so with the passage of time. February and March actually ended up being cooler in 2001 than in 2000.

Spring and summer weather has been pretty normal this year, according to preliminary numbers.

Even the unusually high water flow in the Kenai River has fallen short of records.

According to information kept by the U.S. Geological Survey, the high snowmelt runoff in June was above average, but fell short of record high water reported in September of 1974, September of 1967 and June of 1953.

State climatologist Dwight Pollard warned that the 2001 weather numbers are preliminary and that comparing figures from year to year may be inaccurate because when stations are moved or upgraded, the measurements change. For example, stations tend to show "record" temperatures when moved to new locations, he cautioned.

"Those things get misleading when not taken in context," he said.

He also warned that many records are incomplete. For example, the new automated weather station at Kenai no longer measures snowfall because the FAA no longer requires that information.

"The FAA has decreed that snowfall does not affect air travel. That may be true in Florida," he said.

Pollard dismissed rumors that the summer of 2001 has been dry on the Kenai Peninsula.

"Basically, it is somewhat drier, with the exceptions of March and July. ... It is certainly nothing like the real storms that flood in Seward."

Rainfall in the central peninsula is erratic and, by the standards of other parts of coastal Alaska, slight, he said.

Over five decades of recording rainfall in Kenai, the annual total has ranged from a minimum of about 11 inches to a maximum of about 27 inches. In contrast, nearby Seward gets an average annual rainfall of nearly 67 inches.

"From a purist's point of view, you guys really don't get any rain," Pollard said.

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