Newest field guide highlights the state of snow in Alaska
In mid-March, it snows again in Fairbanks, as it has been snowing for several days since October. This is a good day to pick up Matthew Sturm’s new book, Field Guide to Snow.
Sturm is a snow scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute who has been studying Alaska’s most common land cover for decades. Many of his explorations take place on long snowy routes, which take place around this time of year in the amorphous Arctic.
Here are some nuggets from the “Snow Field Guide” published in 2020:
– Like humans, most snowflakes are imperfect. At least 98% of snowflakes do not look like symmetrical, hexagonal “star dendrites”. Most snowflakes are missing one or more hands. They can be shaped like pencils, bullets or arrowheads. Perfect stellar dendrites, the ideal snowflakes often seen in photographs, have fallen to the ground with the good fortune of avoiding collisions with other snowflakes.
A typical snowpack is at least 50% air, but people still choke when consumed by an avalanche: of air in the snow, “Sturm wrote.
Much of the snow magic for the game is due to “fusion”. The passage of a snowmobile, a ski or a blow from a strong wind causes the snow crystals to break into small, sharp particles that are connected to each other and held tightly. Missing back are hard surfaces, all due to the tendency of snow to settle, which has no sand. “Welding” sticks “the grains together,” Sturm wrote.
– When a cold snap strikes, the cold temperatures will not reach the bottom of the snow for a week. This is because there is a lot of wind – up to 90% for fluffy new snow. “It makes a thin insulating blanket, almost as good as a down jacket,” Sturm wrote.
– More than 1 billion people rely on water from snow they never see. “Even in areas with high snow relief in California, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, people drink snow water and get power from electric turbines from snow water,” Sturm wrote.
On a remarkable day in Alaska, enough snow fell in a high valley to bury an NBA center in front of his eyes. The story follows:
On February 7, 1963, weather observer Ralph Lane recorded 78 inches of snow – 6.5 feet! – at mile 47 Richardson Street.
Mile 47 is located just northeast of the Thompson Pass in the Chugach Mountains, near the confluence of the Stuart Creek and the Tiekel River. In 1963, Lane was in charge of the Alaska Department’s Ernestine Camp, based on Mile 62 Richardson Highway.
While some weather researchers are disputing the data from Mile 47, Alaskan climatologist Brian Brettschneider once spoke to a scientist who had met the late Ralph Lane.
Lane told the man that the snowflakes that day were as big as silver dollars, and he had never seen snow so deep before. Lan also said he was caught in an avalanche that day while driving his snow.
Scientists investigating the claim of 6.5 feet of snow in one day could not prove enough evidence to reverse Lane’s measurement, so Alaska still holds the United States record for the most snow falling in a day.
Ned Rozell is a research fellow at the Institute of Geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.