Looking To Escape The Polar Vortex? Head North To Alaska

Many Alaskans are watching the lower 48 suffer through the cold and snowy winter with one reaction: envy. That's because Alaska is enduring the opposite, facing record high temperatures and extremely low snow totals. Alaska Public Radio Network's Annie Feidt reports that the unusual weather has made it difficult for residents to enjoy the winter sports, like skiing, that are popular in the state.

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The Deep South is preparing for another blast of wintry weather. Snow, ice and freezing rain are expected in parts of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, over the next day. In Alaska, people are watching with envy. That's because the state is enduring the opposite: record high temperatures and very little snow. Organizers of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race are considering moving the starting line from Anchorage, hundreds of miles north to Fairbanks. And the weather has also made life difficult for the state's avid skiers.

Alaska Public Radio's Annie Feidt reports on how they're coping.

ANNIE FEIDT, BYLINE: There are no long lift lines to contend with on a recent day at Alyeska Ski Resort, 40 miles south of Anchorage. But there isn't much snow, either. Brad von Wichman is standing in ski boots at the bottom of the hill. He says the skiing is surprisingly decent.

BRAD VON WICHMAN: So the groom is pretty good. It really is. It's fast snow, fast conditions. If you get off, there's some avalanche chunks and some trees and things like that you got to watch out for.

FEIDT: There are other hazards, too. In places where there are usually feet of snow, this year, it's just a thin layer. And at the base area, it's speckled with chunks of gravel.

WICHMAN: George, guys. That's the downside to all this - the rocks everywhere.

FEIDT: Von Wichman's son comes speeding by with a group of friends.

WICHMAN: When you see sparks coming from their skis, that's a bad thing.

FEIDT: Alyeska is known for getting a lot of snow. The upper mountain averages more than 50 feet each season. But this winter is different. It's been nearly a month since any significant snow fell. And in January, the mountain, along with most of Alaska, endured two weeks of rainy, warm weather that's more typical of early June. The same weather pattern that sent the polar vortex diving into the lower 48 pushed warm air and moisture from the subtropics up into Alaska. The result? Temperatures that were hard to believe.

RICK THOMAN: Seward's 61 degrees, the warmest January temperature ever recorded.

FEIDT: Wait. Seward was 61 or 51?

THOMAN: Sixty-one.

FEIDT: What?

THOMAN: Six-one, yes. That's correct.

FEIDT: That's me interviewing National Weather Service climatologist Rick Thoman on January 28th, the day after winter temperature records were broken across Alaska. Soon after, the mercury returned to its more typical below freezing range. But the damage was done. In Anchorage, three quarters of the snow pack disappeared. And the snow that was left had been hardened into ice. But Scott Berglund isn't letting that stop him from cross-country skiing at one of the trails in town.

SCOTT BERGLUND: Somehow the groomers are able to use the machinery, you know, to chip up that ice and make ski-able snow on top of it. It's unbelievable.

FEIDT: I meet Berglund as he's loading his skate skis into an SUV with a vanity license plate that reads ski4life. He says if he had things his way, it would snow every other night all winter long. His coping strategy this year is pretty simple.

BERGLUND: Just sort of the whole acceptance thing, you know, what can you do?

FEIDT: Berglund says he's just going to keep skiing and praying for snow. Back at Alyeska Resort, that sums up Lex Patten's attitude, too.

LEX PATTEN: I wasn't even paying attention.

FEIDT: Patten just hit the same patch of gravel that got Brad von Wichman's son earlier. Patten's been skiing at Alyeska since the 1960s and says this season is in a league of its own.

PATTEN: I can't recall seeing a year like this. I've said it a couple times. I don't know if I remember seeing this little of snow this time of year ever.

FEIDT: Patten says things could turn around quickly. And he may be right. There's at least a hint of snow in the forecast for this part of Alaska later this week. For NPR news, I'm Annie Feidt in Anchorage.

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