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Winter outlook depends on source

Posted: Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Although temperatures have been dropping fast over the past week, weather forecasters are predicting a somewhat balmy winter for Alaska.

Meteorological technician Dave Vonderheide with the National Weather Service said the computer models the service looks at are predicting warmer temperatures throughout the state and in Southcentral Alaska.

"It's looking like warmer than average temperatures and precipitation about average," he said.

Vonderheide said a low grade El Nino has been affecting water temperatures slightly in the Pacific Ocean, but forecast models are more relying on a general trend toward warm temperatures to guide them.

"Usually, weak El Ninos tend not to affect the higher (latitude) weather patterns," he said. "The temperature forecast mainly reflects a trend toward warmer than normal temperatures in the western United States and Alaska."

As for precipitation, the computer models are saying things are pretty much up in the air.

"It's saying there's an equal chance it could go either way," he said. "That could mean it might be wetter and drier at different parts, and that it could even out as far as an average."

One thing that could influence the weather is the fact that snow began falling and sticking around at higher elevations and latitudes earlier than normal.

"We are getting a very early snow cover in the upper Susitna Valley and in the Copper River basin," he said, adding they already had a foot of snow in September.

"That could have kind of tripped the balance possibly a little earlier as the cold air wants to drain down off the mountains," he said.

No matter what the models say, Vonderheide said it looks like Old Man Winter showed up a little earlier this year, at least at higher elevations.

"It's safe to say winter has already started up there," he said.

Sophisticated computer modeling has brought weather forecasting into the information age, and people can go online to the National Weather Service's Web site to view long-range forecasts.

But the Internet's capability for helping people forecast the weather isn't limited to professionals.

The Old Farmer's Almanac, which since the 1700s has been used to tell people what the weather will be like, also is available online. And it gives another opinion of this year's upcoming winter.

"The winter will be colder than normal, with below-normal precipitation but above-normal snowfall," the Almanac says.

People who rely on that wisdom should bundle up after Christmas, as the Almanac is calling for the coldest period to come between late December and early March.

As the differences in predictions suggest, it's not entirely certain what will happen with this year's weather. However, this being Alaska, it's likely some snow will fall and temperatures will dip down below freezing at some point.

Beyond that, it's anyone's guess.

As chemist Patrick Young points out, "The trouble with weather forecasting is that it's right too often for us to ignore and wrong too often for us to rely on it."

For those who find Young's assessment of weather forecasting too pessimistic, there's always comedian George Carlin's more realistic take: "Forecast for tonight: dark."



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