Measuring up: How meteorologists gauge the snowfall as Anchorage nears a season record

Apr. 6—Even Anchorage's hardened snow lovers have been tested this winter by storm-related conditions and closures. Some folks antsy for the sun-soaked greens and hard-earned warmth of summer might look back and mutter, "This winter has been the worst."

Science might soon back up that subjective take on the snow.

In West Anchorage, meteorologists measure snowfall several times each day, and the data is getting interesting. As of Saturday, Anchorage is 4 inches from tying the season-long snowfall accumulation record. Only two winters have been snowier than the 130.5 inches that have been measured at the National Weather Service's Anchorage forecasting office on Sand Lake Road this snow season.

"We're getting lots of phone calls about it, every time it snows," meteorologist Shaun Baines said Friday. "When we're talking an all-time seasonal snow record, that is a big deal," he said.

Baines is one of several weather experts who staff the dim Anchorage office near Kincaid Park, surrounded by electronic maps and monitors. Despite the high-tech tools, their methods for collecting information on Anchorage snowfall are decidedly analog. They use a table, a tank and a dipstick.

Every six hours, a meteorologist ventures into the facility's backyard to measure the changes. Snow depth is observed by poking a measuring pole into the snow at 10 locations, then arriving at an average. They remove a stainless-steel tank and pour out its liquid to measure precipitation. And they gauge newly accumulated snow by what has collected on the white plastic surface of a small table.

It's the table that helps the pros know if the rest of us can rightfully gripe that there has never been a snowier winter. The 2023-24 season has already earned a spot on the podium. In 2011-12, Anchorage recorded 134.5 inches of snow. That beat the 132.6 inches measured in 1954-55.

However this winter stacks up when the snow-measuring season officially ends June 30, Anchorage has certainly dealt with a doozy.

Intense storms pounded the city numerous times, beginning in November. Back then, schools reverted to remote learning for nearly a week. Schools were closed again in December, then again in January, as the beatdowns continued. Politicians latched on to snowplowing as a contentious issue in the race for mayor. By February, when Anchorage broke the 100-inch mark, concerns turned to snow-loaded rooftops. Several flat-roofed commercial buildings failed. Residents, fearing collapses at home, puzzled through a new question: When is it time to climb up and shovel?

This week, Anchorage welcomed a few more inches with moans and groans from some residents. That amount of snowfall isn't uncommon in April, Baines said. In fact, snow in May is not without precedent. On May 9 of 1963, 3.9 inches of snow fell in Anchorage. That's the latest spring date recorded with an inch or more of new snowfall.

In other words, weeks remain for Anchorage to plausibly break the season snowfall record.

What's the likelihood that it will happen?

"We have no idea," Baines said.

On Saturday, meteorologist Brandon Lawson said snow is possible in the coming week.

"I think right now, Tuesday night into Wednesday, there could be some light snow that makes it into Anchorage," Lawson said. "It doesn't look like a significant event, but depending on how the models trend, things could change pretty quickly."

Still, residents sick of snow have reason to take heart. The team has also gathered data to show that Anchorage is finally turning a corner. During the 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. measurement period Friday, trace amounts of snowfall fell in Anchorage. But it melted quicker than it could accumulate on the measurement table, so it didn't add to the grand total.

"Essentially, the new snowfall for the last six-hour period is zero or trace," Baines said.

Inside the office, weather service staff members noted their guesses about what will be the last day of the season when measurable snow can be recorded. Most guesses on their dry-erase board are in April. History backs that up. Baines said data shows the average last day of a snow depth of 1 inch or more is April 14.

That might seem like an ambitious timeline this year. The snow depth recorded Friday is 23 inches. But the meltdown is well underway. The maximum snow depth this season was 38 inches on Feb. 5, according to Lawson. A month ago it was 30 inches, and it has gradually gone down since then.

"It happens fast because of the sun angle," Baines said. "And you see, even though it's cloudy, there is solar radiation coming through the clouds. The more and more daylight we get, the more effect that's going to have."

Baines said callers sometimes ask forecasters to project into the future about what kind of summer we'll have or how future winters might compare. They have little to offer, he said. Such projections involve analysis of complex weather systems and how they might interact with one another.

"We stick with seven days," he said. "That's our mission here."

Baines also predicts the public interest will be high and the phones will ring if Anchorage breaks the record. Either way, meteorologists will be monitoring their tabletop every six hours.

On Friday, meteorologist Matt Eovino poured collected precipitation into a tall beaker. He said he joined the team in December, the month in which the winter was at its most punishing. Coming from New York and Pennsylvania, he's used to snow, he said, as he poured 0.04 inches of precipitation from a tank into a tall beaker.

"I guess just not necessarily lasting this long," he said.