What we're seeing: Record warmth, huge avalanches isolate Alaska town

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Somewhere under the avalanche debris is the only road linking Valdez, Alaska, to the state's highway system. A snowpack destabilized by three inches of rain and record warmth has left the town isolated. Photo by the City of Valdez, courtesy of the Alaska Dispatch.

Jan. 29, 2014

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Destabilized by unseasonal rain and warmth, a mountain of snow roared downhill, buried a road, blocked a river and cut Valdez, Alaska, from the state's road system.

'We haven't had to deal with anything quite like this before.'

By Douglas Fischer
The Daily Climate

Editor's note: This is part of an ongoing series of analyses by Daily Climate staff connecting the dots among the headlines we see every day. 

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Cold weather slamming into the Midwest and Eastern United States has plenty of people feeling isolated and cut-off.

Turns out the corresponding record warmth baking Alaska as the polar vortex shifts has made that literally true for the coastal town of Valdez.

Over the weekend a series of unprecedented avalanches buried the Richardson Highway, the sole route connecting the town of 4,000 to the state's road system, beneath 50 to 100 feet of snow and debris.

The slides happened in an area well-known for avalanches, but the scale was staggering: The slides dammed the Lowe River, running alongside the road, creating almost overnight a half-mile-long lake atop the roadway.

'Extraordinary' event

Mike Coffey, Alaska Department of Transportation's statewide maintenance engineer, told the Alaska Dispatch the event was "extraordinary."

But so, too, were the conditions triggering the event.

The shifting polar vortex that is sending the eastern half of the Lower 48 into the deep freeze has pulled warm, moist air from the Pacific into Alaska. 

More than three inches of rain fell in 24 hours in the mountains above Valdez, according to the Valdez Avalanche Center, destabilizing the snowpack. 

Record warmth

Unheard-of temperatures in the 40s and even 50s added further stress. Records have dropped across Alaska this week: Nine were set on Monday alone. The hybrid science/journalism site Climate Central reported Tuesday that, over the weekend at 10 p.m. local time Sunday, Homer, Alaska was warmer than anywhere in the Lower 48 except southern California and southern Florida.

The Valdez Avalanche Center warns that avalanche danger will remain "considerable" until temperatures drop below freezing. 

Videos here and here, taken by pilots and posted on YouTube have captured the flooding. Alaska DOT officials say the flooding makes it impossible to clear debris from the roadway upstream of the avalanche dam and far too dangerous to attempt downstream of the dam.

Officials say the lake is draining and a flash flood from the dam bursting is not a concern to Valdez, which does not lie along the Lowe River. The state ferry system has added runs to its schedule to help the city, terminus of the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline. But there's no estimate for when the road will reopen.

"We haven't had to deal with anything quite like this before," Coffey told the Anchorage Daily News.

Douglas Fischer is editor of the Daily Climate, an independent, foundation-funded news service that covers climate change. Find us on Twitter @TheDailyClimate or email editor Douglas Fischer at dfischer [at] DailyClimate.org

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