Midwinter rain on snow is a game changer

Ned Rozell
Jan. 13, 2022

A map shows rainfall patterns across Alaska using the color spectrum. Red and orange colors, representing rainfall less than one inch, lie across much of the state south and west of Fort Yukon. In Interior and Southwest Alaska, numerous green and blue blotches, representing from 1 to 2 inches of rain, cover much of the map in between the widespread red and orange background.
Figure courtesy of Rick Thoman
This map shows approximate rainfall amounts over Alaska during a powerful storm around Christmas 2021.

A few hours of a December day may affect living things for years to come in the middle of Alaska.

On Dec. 26, more than an inch of rain fell over a wide swath of the state. Much of the backcountry of Interior Alaska now has an ice sheet beneath a foot of fluffy snow.

With half of the seven-month winter yet to come, things look grim for creatures not adapted to rainfall in winter, when supercooled surfaces turn water falling from the sky into a sheet of glass. 

All the streets in Fairbanks are now ice roads grooved corduroy by grader blades. Animals without the benefits of heavy equipment are not as lucky.

“The current conditions are as bad or worse as those back in the mid-1960s,” said Dick Bishop, a retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist who has lived in Alaska since 1961. “I don’t remember when we ever had this kind of ice layer.”

Bishop once documented a large moose die-off in the Tanana Flats south of Fairbanks due to deep snows in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

Moose are suffering in these conditions because they can’t move far without using a lot of energy, Bishop said. Postholing makes it harder to find food, as well as escape predators.

A cow moose lowers its head and holds back its ears while standing on a snowy trail surrounded by spruce trees.
Photo by Ned Rozell
A moose in the White Mountains north of Fairbanks refuses to yield the trail to dog mushers in deep snow in March 2018. The mushers turned their teams around.

“Wolves are able to travel on top of this crust,” Bishop said. “That’s a heck of an advantage.”

In area of the Interior where wolves usually don’t venture, like the network of roads and houses near towns and villages, moose have congregated on roads and around houses. 

University of Alaska Fairbanks ecologist Knut Kielland recently fended off a cow moose in his driveway, smacking it on the nose with his walking stick.

“Snowshoeing around my house recently the crust was a good 2 inches thick in places,” Kielland said. “I reckon those moose are getting sore shins.”

“But at least their grub is above the crust (moose eat frozen buds and twigs of willow, aspen and birch trees),” he said. “I feel bad for foxes, coyotes and owls trying to get a meal now. I would think mousing through this crust is a nonstarter. 

“I am also curious as to how the winter will unfold for the vole tribe,” Kielland said. “The crust is likely to slow the diffusion rate of carbon dioxide out of the snowpack. If so, everyone beneath the crust will sooner or later be in need of fresh air. How well they can chew their way thru the crust remains to be seen.”

Bishop once estimated that about half of the moose population in the Tanana Flats south of Fairbanks died during the deep-snow winters in 1965-1966 and 1970-1971. Biologists won’t know the fate of Interior moose until the winter ends. 

A moose stomach lies surrounded by moose hair on snow packed down by wolves in a forest.
Photo by Sam Bishop
The remains of a moose calf lie on the snow in a valley north of Goldstream Creek near Fairbanks on Jan. 8, 2022. It had died following December's deep snows and freezing rain. Within a few days, wolves found and ate it, leaving nothing but the stomach, the pelvic bones and a lot of hair.

“We don’t expect many of the calves to survive the winter but are hopeful the adults will make it through,” biologist Tony Hollis wrote in a Jan. 5, 2022, press release from the Fairbanks office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

How weird was it to have a summer-like rainfall in midwinter this far north?

“There is only one event in Fairbanks history that even approximates this,” said climate researcher Rick Thoman of the International Arctic Research Center. “Over the course of three days, Jan. 18-20, 1937, Fairbanks had 26 inches of snow followed by an inch of rain. (The Dec. 26, 2021,) event had less snow but more rain in a bit over half the time, and then was followed by another 8 to 12 inches of snow.”

Thoman and forecasters at the Fairbanks office of the National Weather Service saw the rain coming via computer models that days in advance nailed “a Hawaii-to-western-Alaska feed of subtropical moisture” powered by a massive high-pressure system in the North Pacific Ocean. It was the same weather system that was responsible for a temperature of 67 degrees in Kodiak and a record-cold Christmas in Ketchikan.

That wacky pattern mirroring those all over the planet recently is what we might continue to see with a warming world, said Peter Bieniek of UAF’s International Arctic Research Center.

“Rain-on-snow is projected to increase throughout much of Alaska (including Fairbanks) as the climate continues to get warmer and wetter,” said Bieniek, a climate modeler and author of a recent paper on winter-rainfall events in Alaska. “Southern coastal areas may even see a transition from rain-on-snow to rain.”

Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.

Main UAF web page featured photo: Ned Rozell holds a shard of ice crust, an inch thick, found lurking in the middle of the Fairbanks snowpack. Photo by Kristen Rozell.