While the northern states struggle with record high snowfall and sub-zero temperatures, the small town of Valdez, Alaska is experiencing unusually warm temperatures. The town has been cut off by an avalanche that is blocking the main highway. Nearly a dozen avalanches that were caused by a warmup affected the area over the weekend.
Friday morning weather conditions triggered the avalanches. Not only did Alaska experience unseasonably warm temperatures, but it also had rain. The six inches of rain that hit the area over the past week created unstable conditions. The water is currently sitting under the snow, creating a tricky situation and stumping local engineers.
Avalanches occur when the weight of the snow pulls it away from the mountainside. That’s what happened in Valdez when the temperatures and the sun loosened the snow. Valdez has had 55.2 inches of snow this January and a seasonal total of 179.5 inches.
One of the avalanches caused by the warmup cut off a highway and a river in Alaska, creating a half-mile lake. Residents compared the sound of the avalanche to the sound of jets flying overhead. They also noted the distinct smell of dirt.
Richardson Highway won’t reopen until the water is drained. Since the water is too steep and dangerous to send crews in, there is no way of knowing how long it will take to clear. Though the area gets a fair number of avalanches, they aren’t usually a big issue.
Mike Coffee is a maintenance engineer for DOT. He estimates 100 feet of snow over the Lowe River and 50 feet over the highway. He said, “This is of a magnitude we probably have never seen before.”
Valdez, a city 300 miles from Anchorage, Alaska, is home to 4,100 residents. Officials continue to urge residents in the immediate area to voluntarily leave their homes. A local high school and a teen center have been designated as safety zones for evacuees.
Though the highway is inaccessible, the city isn’t completely cutoff. The trans-Atlantic pipeline isn’t affected. At this point, water and air access to the city are still available.
Ferries are making living conditions bearable. Groceries are being brought in by ferry and residents can leave by ferries with their vehicles. Fuel isn’t said to be an issue at this point because it can be brought in on barges. The ferry schedule has been ramped up to meet the needs of the residents.
The risk of the warmup causing additional avalanches in Alaska is low. A crusty layer of ice has formed that acts as a barrier. The real concern is the warmer temperatures that are in the weather forecast. The high temperature in Valdez was 36 degrees today. The seven-day forecast shows more of the same, with average temperatures in the mid-30’s. These weather conditions will make it more difficult to drain the water and clean up the mess. A flash flood warning has been issued by the National Weather Service. Richardson Highway is expected to remain closed through early February. The City Council of Valdez continues to meet and reassess the situation.
By Tracy Rose