No matter how you read weather, winter is on its way

Part art, part science

Posted: Friday, October 18, 2002

When the Dena'ina Indians were the sole occupants of the Kenai Peninsula, each village had a sky reader -- a person whose only job was to watch the sky for any unusual little changes that might help predict the weather, according to a Kenai Peninsula College anthropology professor.

Then, as now, it was important for people to have an idea of what type of weather was heading their way.

One peninsula resident today watches the sky for the behavior of migratory water fowl, the KPC professor observes the thickness of the seasonal crop of fireweed and sophisticated weather satellites and computer models are employed by the National Weather Service, but forecasting remains anything but exact.

Dan Keirns, a meteorologist in the Anchorage Forecast Office, predicted that Alaska's winter will be "a little warmer than the last one with close to normal precipitation."

Expected snowfall will be at or near normal levels of 40 to 42 inches, and average temperatures will be near 20 degrees in November, below the mid-teens in December, between 12 and 13 degrees in January, in the upper teens in February and returning to the lower 20s in March, according to Keirns.

In addition to technology, the weather service also uses thousands of volunteers throughout the United States who report temperatures and precipitation amounts daily to get a handle on weather patterns.

Longtime Sterling resident and nature lover Philip Kimball looks to the sky for his weather information.

"The surprising thing this year is that there have only been three flocks of geese, all on separate days about a week ago," said Kimball.

"Usually, they fatten up in the Yukon Delta as long as they can without getting stuck here, and then they come through in a rush.

"Then all hell breaks loose in terms of our weather," he said.

Kimball also did not see any large flocks of departing sandhill cranes, which normally leave at the end of summer, he said.

He is surprised too by the absence of what he calls killer frosts so far this season. Kimball and his wife, Rosemary, are avid gardeners and keep an eye on vegetable plants that are killed by early frosts.

"We usually lose about an inch of potato vine with each frost," he said. "So far, this year, we've only had a couple of frosts," Kimball said Wednesday.

Perhaps his favorite method of predicting the severity of the approaching winter comes in the form of a joke.

"I look at the size of my neighbor's wood pile," he said with a chuckle.

KPC Professor Alan Boraas, in addition to studying ways of the Dena'ina, keeps an eye on fireweed.

"Local folklore says if the fireweed is thick, there's going to be a lot of snow," he said.

This year, fireweed was thick, said Boraas.

More scientifically, the National Weather Service reports that this will be an El Nino year, which can have an impact on weather around the Pacific Ocean, usually bringing warmer weather due to increased storms and cloudiness.

"It's not going to be that strong of an El Nino this year though," said Keirns. "We'll see some increase in cloud cover, but not that much."

It is possible that Kimball's suggestion of watching the neighbor's wood pile is the best bet.

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