Alaska Scenes

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Beluga point in winter

Winter in Alaska

In the summer, Beluga Point on the Seward Highway a few miles southeast of Anchorage is a popular spot to stop, enjoy the view and, perhaps, catch a glimpse of a pod of beluga whales. The winter views are dramatic, too, though often more somber as on this overcast day. The whiteness on the horizon is not low-lying clouds but distant peaks of the Alaska Range, rising 11,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level. Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet the tallest mountain in North America, is part of this range.

George Washington ice sculptureAnchorage gets much less snow in the winter than do a few cities in the Lower 48 such as Buffalo, N.Y. But the snow starts falling in early to mid-October and it stays on the ground till April. A snowfall on April 25, 2008, just as Anchorage residents thought they'd seen the last of winter, put a record for the day of 15.5 inches of snow on the ground.

If you want snow, Valdez, on the southcentral coast, is the place to go. Known as one of the snowiest places in Alaska, it received four feet of snow in a single December weekend in 1999 and had received 136 inches by December 22nd, the official first day of winter. In recent years, extreme skiing competitions have been held in the nearby mountains.

Winter temperatures in Anchorage average in the teens, and it gets colder as you go north. Forty-below (Fahrenheit) isn't unusual in Fairbanks, and it's so cold on Alaska's North Slope oil fields that vehicles sitting outdoors may not be turned off for months at a time. A former mayor of Fairbanks tells of seeing a tire fall off a truck there and shatter on hitting the street when it was 60 below.

A couple of winter phenomena that are not encountered in many other places are ice fog and black ice. Ice fog is composed of ice crystals suspended in the air, which sometimes happens when it's 40 below, and it's just as challenging to drive in as any other kind of fog. Black ice on roads is feared by drivers because they don't become aware of it until they're skidding on it.

Alyeska ski slopeAnother, dramatic winter phenomenon is the building up of hoarfrost on trees. Because the Anchorage area often has several windless days in a row, a thick layer of hoarfrost sometimes builds up on exposed surfaces, turning them a frosty white.

A look at temperatures in various Alaska locations on Dec. 21, 1999, the day before the winter solstice, provides an idea of the range of winter weather in the state. The high temperature was 50 (Fahrenheit) in Sitka, which is in Southeast Alaska, and the low was -41 in Deering, a village on the shores of Kotzebue Sound in Northwest Alaska. (The two communities are about 1,200 miles apart, as the raven flies.) The high in Fairbanks was 12; in Barrow, on the North Slope, it was -8; and at Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutians, it was 27 and windy. The high in Anchorage was 41, well above the normal high for that day of 22, and it had 5 hours and 28 minutes of daylight on this, the day before the shortest day of the year. Barrow, in the middle of its months-long night, had no daylight at all.

Popular winter activities in Alaska include downhill and cross-country skiing (the photo above is of one of the ski runs at Alyeska in Girdwood, about an hour's drive from Anchorage), skijoring (skiers are pulled by one or two dogs), snowmachining, dog-sled racing and snowshoeing. Alyeska, about 35 miles southeast of Anchorage (it's included in the Anchorage municipality) has slopes that attract downhill skiers from Europe as well as from the Lower 48. Ice sculpting competitions are held in Fairbanks and in Anchorage. The above sculpture of George Washington crossing the Delaware is from a contest in Anchorage.

Snowmachines at Summit Lodge

Snowmachines await their riders outside Summit Lodge, a popular stop on the Seward Highway.
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How dark does it get?

The sun disappears for about two months in Barrow, on Alaska's north coast. In Anchorage, the sun rises around 10:30 a.m. and sets around 3:30 on the shortest day (December 20 or 21, the winter solstice). The shortest day is about an hour longer in Juneau, almost 2 hours shorter in Fairbanks.

In the parts of Alaska where the sun still rises and sets, its journey through the day describes an arc through the heavens in the southern sky. If you're moving to Alaska, be sure to get a home with south facing windows.

Painters have fallen in love with the unusual winter light, known as alpenglow, that often gives the snowclad mountains and landscape a pinkish cast.

Lights at night

The Northern Lights are one of the least predictable winter attractions in Alaska. Folks try though. The weather page of the Anchorage Daily News includes a Northern Lights forecast and the Geophysical Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has put its Northern Light forecasts online. They're rarely seen from Anchorage though, because of the brightness of the city lights. Viewing is better away from the city.