Saturday, November 16, 2013

global weirding

I spent a few hours Thursday afternoon shoveling. I shoveled the path to the outhouse, and then the gravel pad around my cabin. If you don’t keep on it, you just delay spring. This year, my driveway was covered in snow till mid-May.
The night before, a storm blew in from the Bering Sea, bringing 70 mile-an-hour gusts and near-record warm temperatures. Before the storm, or maybe with the storm, it drizzled freezing rain, snowed, and then rained, so when the wind came Wednesday night, it shook clumps of heavy, wet snow from the trees. Several times the sound made me think someone had come to my door. When huge sheets of snow slid from my roof and hit the ground, the whole cabin shook.
In my loft, I cracked the window open – it was 40 degrees, which felt tropical – and listened to the wind in the trees and the occasional crack of trunk or limb. The light flicked off and on. I did not sleep well.
In the morning, the power was out. I lit a few candles and a kerosene lantern and made coffee on the wood stove, opening another window so I wouldn’t overheat. My phone’s battery was half-full. I checked on my chickens (at my friend Ian’s house down the street) to make sure their water wouldn’t freeze, but it was 30 degrees outside and warmer in the coop.
Aside from electronics, my only concern was a thawing freezer. When I got my first caribou, six years ago, it was mid-October and I just kept the meat in a plastic tub outside. But that wouldn’t have worked this year. After an early snow in September, we had record highs in October, and now, in mid-November, it was 40 degrees. The normal high this time of year is 11.
My friends Trystan and Mareca arrived (Trystan lives across the street) and started shoveling his drive. Mareca said she felt bad for the voles, who tunnel through the snow in the winter. She wondered if they’d be able to get around now that the snow was saturated with rain. I hadn’t thought of them, but had heard of caribou struggling to get at lichen after freezing rain.
The power came on just after they left, a little after 10. My meat and fish would be fine.
Trystan had mentioned that some Bering Sea villages got hit hard. My cell service (and hence Internet) worked fine, so I got online and read the news. The News-Miner quoted Ed Plumb, of the National Weather Service, talking about the ice grains and freezing drizzle in Fairbanks on Wednesday morning. None of the meteorologists had seen anything like it; the air temperature was 10 degrees and freezing drizzle was falling. What made it really weird, Plumb said, was that there were no above-freezing temperatures anywhere in the atmosphere.
Wednesday evening, the temperature had jumped 20 degrees in an hour and a half.
There were unofficial reports of lightening.
Flights were cancelled.
Schools were closed Wednesday and again Thursday. The Fairbanks district hadn’t had a snow day for decades until the Icepocalypse, in 2010, when more than half an inch of rain fell the week of Thanksgiving and school was canceled for three days. Now we had two more days.
The news from the Bering Sea was even worse. “The town was actually a part of the ocean,” Thomas Sinka, the mayor of Kotlik, told the Alaska Dispatch. Water and ice flooded the village and knocked out connections between houses and the above-ground water and sewer system. Freezers were flooded, contaminated with diesel and sewage. Food was ruined at the store. 
Health providers were flying in bottled water, disinfectants, and vaccines. If they can't fix the water and sewer systems, people will be hauling water and pooping in buckets all winter.
One story quoted Michael Kutz of the National Weather Service saying warm water in the Bering Sea had kept sea ice from forming – and protecting the coast – as it normally does this time of year. Sinka said even some of the elders hadn’t seen a storm this bad. The first surge came on Saturday; the second hit on Wednesday.
I thought about guys I met in Barrow years ago talking about ice cellars (used to store whale and other meat) filling with water as the permafrost thawed. 
I read an op-ed by an Australian woman about increased wildfires there, and a new flood of jellyfish in the water around Sydney. 
On Facebook, I learned I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t slept well.
I went outside. It looked like it was snowing lightly, but it felt like rain. It was 29 degrees.
There was about 10 inches of snow on the roof of my woodshed, probably saturated with rain. I figured the rough-cut rafters could handle it, but it made me wonder. I know there are tables somewhere that calculate snow load and framing needs based on roof pitch and location. In Valdez, you need to plan for big dumps of wet snow; in Fairbanks, the snow is usually light. I know there are numbers for floods and winds, too.
I shoveled in a t-shirt, heaving shovelfuls off the edge of my gravel pad. The snow was thick and hard where it had slid from my roof, and I wondered if my shovel – the perfect shovel, I thought, for Fairbanks – was up to the task. I could buy a new shovel, but that’s not the point. The point is that lately it seems like we’re not living in the world we used to live in.
On a philosophical level, it seems like a damn waste. I think there’s something beautiful about an object ideally suited to its job. A canoe perfectly suited to a river. A house built just right for the seasons. They reflect the knowledge and care of the maker. Houses are built the way they are because that’s what works; ideally, the process reflects hundreds of years of trial and error. People learn to travel, hunt, and fish by deeply understanding the world around them. Plants and animals “learn” to survive in a given environment. Change that environment too much and all that knowledge becomes useless.
On a practical level, it’s dangerous. Houses flood and fail when they’re not built for new conditions. People die when river ice doesn’t behave like it used to.
When I went after caribou this fall, just north of the Brooks Range, it was windy and warm. We didn’t find any animals. Driving back down the Dalton, I nearly slid off the road near Coldfoot. At Finger Mountain, we waited through the night where a truck blocked the road. Normally the road would be frozen hard by mid-October, but the warm weather had made it slick. The trucker got halfway up the hill. When he stopped to put on chains, the parked truck slid off the road. It was a tanker full of diesel, and fully half its wheels were hanging in midair off the shoulder. Some of the other truckers and hunters were surprised it hadn’t split in half.
Snow coming off my roof had nearly buried my snowmachine, which was already covered in ice. I shoveled it out and fired it up, chipping ice off the cowling as it warmed. I did the same with my truck, using my ice scraper on the roof. I shoveled around my parking spot and hoped my neighbor with a plow would help with the drive.
This whole year has been weird weatherwise. Winter was long, with snow into May. The Tanana River ice didn’t go out till May 20, the latest date in 97 years of record-keeping. Then the summer was hot and dry, with a record number of 80-degree days in Fairbanks. 
It was Thomas Friedman who coined (or at least popularized) the term “global weirding.” He was trying to convey that global warming wouldn’t just make the planet a degree or two warmer; it would make the weather weirder. Thinking about Kotlik, weirding – or warming, or change, for that matter – seemed quaint and outdated. Maybe we need a new word.
Daylight faded away. I put on my headlamp and kept shoveling. The temperature dropped. I put on a sweatshirt. I checked the birds again, reset the timer on their light, and walked back with my cold hands wrapped around warm eggs. My neighbor came and plowed my drive, turning down an offer of beer.
I finished shoveling and went inside. Someone on the radio announced that schools would be closed again on Friday; a truck was partially blocking the Dalton Highway.
And that was just a mic break. Alaska News Nightly was surreal.
The first story was about the Bering Sea villages. Two-thirds of Kotlik’s water and sewer system was shut down and a good part of the village was staying at the high school. Flooding in Stebbins had left several houses uninhabitable. Water had breached a seawall in Teller and washed away hundreds of yards of beach. Shishmaref was preparing for another surge that night.
Then Fairbanks. Thirteen thousand households had lost power – from falling trees, blown fuses, and broken crossarms – and many still didn’t have it back. It hit 44 degrees Wednesday (one degree shy of the record); a quarter inch of rain fell, along with five inches of snow.
After that, a hay shortage. Late planting and a hot summer had resulted in low yields. Straw is selling at double last year’s prices. Farmers are slaughtering or giving away livestock; mushers are straining at the cost of straw bedding for their dogs.
The next story was about a study correlating high latitudes with high suicide rates.
I turned off the radio and rode my snowmachine down the hill to get some beer. Small trees were littered across the side of the road. I nearly bogged down in the heavy snow, then bounced over piles that had already set up.
On Friday morning, it was five degrees. According to the News-Miner, 3,000 households still didn’t have power, putting them at risk of frozen pipes. Every store in town had sold out of generators, and the electric utility had hired every lineman available. Fred Meyer was throwing out perishable food. 
My phone says it will be minus 20 by the middle of next week.


stefan said...

UPDATE: Thanks to Emily Schwing (and Rick Thoman) for adding some perspective on this! In Schwing's story on KUAC (, Thoman, of the National Weather Service, explains that it's rained even more in Fairbanks in winters past -- in the 1920s and 1930s and again in the 1960s. My post certainly implied this was a result of climate change. Now that seems a weak claim, although it shouldn't change anyone's understanding that Alaska's climate is changing. It's a common claim, and true as far as I know, that Alaska and the Arctic are warming faster than most places. But I'm pretty sure Alaska's climate is also more heavily affected than other places' by a semi-regular climate shift called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, similar to El Nino/La Nina but on a much longer time scale. Basically there are "warm" and "cool" periods, shifting every 20-30 years. The story doesn't mention the PDO, but Thoman does say the rains don't correlate well with north Pacific ocean temperatures, upon which the PDO is based. So it seems winter rain in Fairbanks remains somewhat a mystery.

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