Newest field guide highlights the state of snow in Alaska
It is snowing again in Fairbanks in mid-March, as it has snowed many days since October. That makes it 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 studied Alaska’s most common ground covers for decades. Much of his explorations take place on long snow machine trips made around this time of year in the treeless Arctic.
Here are some nuggets from the “Field Guide to Snow” published in 2020:
– Like humans, most snowflakes are imperfect. At least 98% of the snowflakes do not resemble symmetrical, six-pointed “star dendrites”. Most snowflakes are missing one or more arms. They can be shaped like pencils, balls, or arrowheads. Perfect star dendrites, the ideal snowflakes often seen in photos, fell to the ground with the luck of avoiding collisions with other snowflakes in the air.
– A typical snow cover consists of at least 50% air, but people can still suffocate if they are consumed by an avalanche: “Due to the victim’s own body heat and the victim’s moist breath, an impermeable ice barrier will soon form near the face, which the flow interrupts air in the snow, “wrote Sturm.
– Much of the magic of snow to play with comes from “sintering”. The passage of a snow machine, a pair of skis, or a stomp through a stiff wind causes snow crystals to break down into small, sharp particles that bind together and cling to one another. What remains are hard-packed surfaces, all due to the tendency of the snow to stand up that sand lacks. “Sintering causes the grains to stick together,” wrote Sturm.
– When a cold snap occurs, the cold temperatures do not reach the bottom of the snowpack for a week. This is because there is so much air – up to 90% for fluffy fresh snow. “It makes a fine insulating blanket, almost as good as a down parka,” wrote Sturm.
– More than 1 billion people rely on the water made from snow they never see. “Even in the largely snow-free areas of California, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, people drink snowmelt water and get electricity from electric turbines powered by snowwater,” Sturm wrote.
– On a remarkable day in Alaska, enough snow fell in a high valley to bury an NBA center in his eyeballs. The story follows:
On February 7, 1963, weather observer Ralph Lane recorded 78 inches of snow – that’s 6.5 feet! – on mile 47 of the Richardson Highway.
Mile 47 is northeast of Thompson Pass in the Chugach Mountains, near the confluence of Stuart Creek and Tiekel Rivers. In 1963, Lane was the foreman of the Alaska Department of Highway’s Ernestine Camp on Mile 62 Richardson Highway.
While some weather researchers deny 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 the snowflakes that day were the size of silver dollars and that he had never seen snow this deep before. Lane also said he got caught in an avalanche that day while driving his snowplow.
Scientists researching the claim of 6.5 feet of snow in one day failed to produce enough evidence to reverse Lane’s measurement. As a result, Alaska still holds the US record for the most snowfall in a day.
Ned Rozell is a science writer at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.