Heavy winter snowfall may become more common in Y-K Delta

A bus stop halfway covered with snow
A bus stop in Bethel surrounded by deep snow. March 12, 2021. (Gabby Hiestand Salgado/ KYUK)

Recent storms have battered the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta coast and dumped many feet of snow in various places. Some are saying this is more snow than they’ve seen in decades. Scientists say that heavy snowfall may become more common in Alaska in the future.

Blizzards and deep snow have made travelling around Bethel more dangerous recently. Last week, Bethel Search and Rescue engaged in four searches for overdue travelers. One woman from Kasigluk was found dead just south of Bethel; the others made it home safely.

BSAR President Mike Riley said that in all four instances, heavy snow was a factor.

“With the recent searches we had, they didn’t anticipate this much snow on the tundra, on the trails, and they burned all their gas up because of plowing through snow pulling a heavy load. And they weren’t able to travel anymore,” Riley said.

He commended one of the travelers who, after getting stuck, dug a hole in the snow, covered himself with a tarp and remained close to his snowmachine until searchers found him.

Riley said the fresh snow was 3 feet deep in many areas on the tundra. Like several other people KYUK talked to, he said that he hadn’t seen this much snow around Bethel in decades.

“We haven’t seen this for a while since the mid 90s, 2000s. We haven’t had this much snowfall for quite some time,” Riley said.

There are no official measurements for snow depth in Bethel. The National Weather Service stopped measuring snowfall there in 2018. However, Alaska climate scientist Rick Thoman said that more snow would make perfect sense, given the Earth’s warming climate.

“Why? Well the average temperature in Bethel is way below freezing in the winter. So even though it warms, say, on average 5 degrees [Fahrenheit], it’s still more than cold enough for snow,” Thoman said. “In the wintertime, where are we getting moisture from for snow? Mostly from the oceans. And we know the oceans are warming. That means there’s more evaporation.”

Thoman said the southern Bering Sea has been 1 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average this year. To summarize: warmer ocean temperatures lead to more evaporation, which then becomes more precipitation than normal. Thoman said that big winter storms with heavy snowfall could become more common in the Y-K Delta and other parts of Alaska in the future. But with a warming climate, he said that comes with a few caveats.

“There will almost surely be more rain events in the future in winter,” Thoman said. “And on average, getting snow in October, say in Bethel, will become much less common. And the same, maybe, in November.”

This winter in Bethel has been a degree and-a-half warmer than the historical 30-year average.

It’s unclear how extra snow during the winter will impact flooding along the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers in the spring. National Weather Service hydrologist Celine Van Breukelen said that there is up to 50% more snow than normal in the mountains near the headwaters of the Kuskokwim. but she said that whether that causes more flooding this year will depend on how fast the snow melts.

“If we have a quick warmup, that means that the snow is going to melt before the ice in the river has a chance to degrade, which is going to increase our chances for breakup flooding,” Van Breukelen said.

Van Breukelen expects to have better flood predictions in April, based on a more accurate assessment of the season’s snowpack and temperatures during the river breakup.

Heavy snowfall is not all doom and gloom, though. Many people, like Chevak Elder and longtime teacher of Cup’ik culture John Pingayak, welcome the snow.

“When there’s a lot of snow, there’s always a positive effect on our subsistence way of life,” Pingayak said.

While deep, fresh snow can be difficult to travel on, Pingayak said that oftentimes after it snows, a south wind brings moisture from the ocean and wets the snow. Once the wet snow freezes, he said that the tundra becomes a smooth surface.

“And then it’s like a roadway,” Pingayak said. “That’ll keep the hunters safer on the land, on the tundra.”

And he said that the snow will have lasting impacts that linger past winter and spring. He said that the extra snow will help water the tundra and provide for an abundance of berries this summer.

Berry pickers will be glad to hear that there is more snow forecast for much of the Y-K Delta this weekend. There is a blizzard warning for the Kuskokwim Delta coast on March 13.

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