Forecast: Mild, lots of snow

Posted: Friday, October 19, 2001

Ancient civilizations had soothsayers, prophets and sorcerers. The modern world has the "science" of forecasting.

Rather than checking sheep entrails or the sleeping habits of groundhogs, today's long-range weather forecasters rely on computer models and studies of climate cycles.

The forecasters are predicting that the first part of the winter in south central Alaska, including the Kenai Peninsula, will be fairly average. But the late winter will be mild, they say.

The federal National Weather Service runs a Climate Prediction Center in Maryland that issues long-range weather predictions based on climate trends, seasonal norms and past weather.

Huug van den Dool, from the center, said via e-mail that the fall temperatures for Alaska are likely to be within normal ranges, but after the new year the state is likely to experience above-normal temperatures and precipitation for the rest of the winter.

According to information the center posted on its Web site, climatologists predict the return of the El Nino temperature conditions in the Pacific in 2002, with implications for weather along Alaska's south coast.

Through the end of 2001, temperatures in most of the state will be normal, although western Alaska will be colder. Starting around January, the Interior will see above-normal temperatures. By late winter, the warming trend will spread throughout most of Alaska, including the Gulf of Alaska coast, it said.

Another source of weather wisdom, the "OId Farmer's Almanac," came to a similar conclusion.

The 210th edition of the historic publication, for 2002, included its famous regional guides to weather and planting predictions. The almanac claimed an 80 percent accuracy rate for its forecasts.

"We derive our weather forecasts from a secret formula devised by the founder of this almanac in 1792, enhanced by the most modern scientific calculations based on solar activity and current meteorological data," it said.

Curiously, the printed book omits Alaska, but its online version includes the 49th state.

According to the almanac, the rest of 2001 will see normal temperatures; milder temperatures will start in January.

"Snowfall will be well above normal," it warned.

Last year, the winter turned out to be the warmest statewide since records have been kept, although no specific records were set in the central peninsula area.

At the Kenai weather station, operated by the Federal Aviation Administration, the historic mean winter temperatures range from a low of 12 degrees Fahrenheit in January to a high of 23 degrees in March. Last winter, the mean January temp was a balmy 27, while March was a more normal 28.

The average depth of winter snow ground cover at Kenai is about one foot, with December being the month that, on average, gets the most white stuff.

Scientific observers of the Kenai Peninsula put little stock in the folklore that beaver food caches predict winter's severity or fireweed going to seed predicts the first snow.

"That is nonsense," said Boyd Shaffer, a naturalist who teaches at Kenai Peninsula College.

"The plants get fooled all the time and so do the birds."

Shaffer said he has been here since 1958 and tracks winter weather. If anything, the peninsula's winter weather has gotten more varied and erratic, he said.

"I've never seen two years the same," he said.

"My prediction is accurate: It is unpredictable. ... The only constant in the universe is change."

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