The winter of 2011-2012 — when will it go?

Memorial day is used in many areas as a marker for the start of summer. Not in St. Paul, Alaska. Today they observed the holiday along with rain, freezing rain, temperatures hovering around the freezing point, and sustained winds around 25 mph, bringing wind chills down to the teens (in F, or around -12 C) . This is one of the more extreme examples of the extreme winter that does not want to leave.  I usually do not include May in a winter summary, but this year it seems to want to be in there.

How bad was the winter? In a nutshell, most of Alaska had much more snow than usual, the exception being the interior, where snowfall was not far from average. Here’s the final standing in the Iditasnow, the friendly inter-community snow rivalry. (click for larger version)

total snowfall for 2011-2012 season
total snowfall for 2011-2012 season

Although many stations had 150 percent or more of average snowfall, only a couple broke their seasonal records, and none that I can find set new records for snow depth, although several came close, including Kodiak and Yakutat (the data I had for snow depth was not as complete as the other data, so some of the records in the chart were possibly exceeded in earlier years).

It is puzzling how Barrow can get 76 inches of snow and never get more than 15 inches on the ground at any one time. There is little melting there. But there is a lot of wind, which packs the snow into dense windslab and generally makes getting accurate measurements of snowfall and snow depth difficult. Also notable was the top of Alyeska ski area where 962 inches (24.5 meters) fell, a new record by a bit.

For more on the heavy snow year, see this post and/or this one.

Temperatures rode a roller-coaster this winter with a amazingly coincidental monthly frequency of ups and downs. Check out this table:

The monthly flip flops show up with the cells colored for above or below average. The poor souls along the west coast did not get much relief in the “warmer” months. The departures to the cold side are quite large for the winter in those areas.

Here are some highlights for the winter:

  • An exceptionally strong low moved from the North Pacific  north into the Bering Sea on November 7th and then north through the Bering Strait, causing strong winds and heavy precipitation for most of the western half of Alaska , and coastal flooding for several west coast communities.
  • The winter started off strong in Southeast Alaska where Haines was socked with 126 inches of snow just in November.
  • The Anchorage hillside experienced five wind storms in December alone, ranging in wind strength  from 80-118 mph.
  • The Bering Sea pack ice must have been on steroids this winter. The ice covered all of Bristol Bay and engulfed the Pribilof Islands for the longest period since regular records are available (roughly 35 years).
  • January 2012 was the coldest January ever for numerous cities in Alaska and the coldest month of any month ever for some, such as Bethel, where frozen utility lines closed the school for more than a week.
  • Heavy wet snow was a major concern in Cordova. The National Guard was sent in to help clear buildings and streets. Schools were closed there and in Valdez for fear of roof failure.
  • Around February 1st the AC store in King Cove had its back loading doors blown in and stockroom filled with snow by an avalanche. See the video at
  • By March, roofs of several large buildings in Anchorage had collapsed or were damaged by the heavy snow load.
  • April provided a respite for much of the state. In Juneau the high made it to 62F and many days were in the 50s, but as of today (5/28) Juneau has yet to reach even 60 F this May.
  • Cold Bay had snow in the air daily May 1-14.  Kodiak got 2.4 inches of the white stuff on May 13th.  St Paul had  snow on about half of May days through the 22nd (and most days in the preceding months).

I’d love to hear what winter was like where you were.

In the next day or so I’ll address the question of what the summer will be like, if it ever arrives. Sign up for our “subscribe to posts” service if you want to get an email when it is ready.

2 thoughts on “The winter of 2011-2012 — when will it go?

  1. Hello!
    Very interesting blog! I’m a weather forecaster in Tromsø, Arctic Norway (at nearly 70 degrees north). Last night we had 8 cm (> 3 inches) of fresh snow, leaving many of us wondering if spring will ever come (let alone summer!). This winter has been quite strange: the snow arrived really late (no proper snow cover until late in February), and now it doesn’t seem to want to leave. Early in February we had extremely low temperatures here in Tromsø, with a minimum of -18.3 C (0F), which is not uncommon further inland, but very extreme here on the coast. You can see some statistics for Tromsø here:
    Generally Europe has had an interesting winter, with snow reaching countries that don’t normally see snow, and a period with extreme cold.
    Fingers crossed for a good summer!

  2. Thanks for putting this post together, Jim.

    It was a heck of a winter.

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