When someone pictures Alaska, they likely imagine snow-capped mountains, incredible wildlife, and an impressive natural scene, and they’re completely right! Alaska in the winter is both remarkable and intimidating. Snowfall can be beautiful or dangerous in the state depending on abundance and frequency. Overall, though, Alaskan snowfall is positively unlike snowfall in any other state or region. It’s unique, it’s captivating, and it’s gorgeous. So why not take a look?
Understanding Snowfall in Alaska
Three aspects of Alaskan nature combine to create heavy snowfall in the state. The aspects are the Aleutian Low, the Polar Jet Stream, and Pacific Decadal Oscillation. These phenomena are described below.
The Aleutian Low is situated just southwest of the Gulf of Alaska near the Aleutian Islands. It is a low-pressure center, meaning that storms are more likely to be harvested around the Aleutian Low. When wind currents meet rising air in the atmosphere over the Aleutian Low, water vapor condenses. This action forms storm clouds, which lead to increased precipitation in Alaska.
Polar Jet Stream
The Polar Jet Stream is a strong, fast wind current that blows across polar regions in the upper northern hemisphere. Alaska sits within the range of the polar jet stream, so its storms develop and advance according to the flow of this wind current.
Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO)
Pacific Decadal Oscillation, in simple terms, describes how the atmosphere over the ocean changes periodically. For instance, PDO shifts between cool and warm ocean surface temperatures, which affect the western coast of the United States. A positive PDO illustrates cooler ocean surface temperatures, while a negative PDO means warm ocean surface temperatures. When there is a positive PDO, low pressure storms are three times more likely to occur than high-pressure storms. Therefore, when a positive PDO combines with the Aleutian Low, snowstorms form.
The Three Combined
When the cool ocean surface temperatures of positive PDO interact with the low pressure in an Aleutian Low, storms develop more and more frequently. These storms follow the Polar Jet Stream wind current, dumping inches upon inches of snow onto Alaska.
Temperature in Alaska
Temperature in Alaska varies according to the region, similar to snowfall and weather pattern variability. There are five main regions within Alaska that all experience average temperature ranges differently. The five regions are outlined below, and their monthly temperature ranges are described by the highest and lowest averages across three cities within the region. The five regions’ highest and lowest annual temperature averages are summarized in a table, too.
In October, average Arctic temperatures range between 11.6ºF to 34.3ºF. In November, temperature averages have highs of 22.9ºF and lows of -8.1ºF. December highs measure 14.4ºF and lows measure -16.6ºF. January temperatures characterize Alaska’s descent into a true bone-chilling cold with lows of -20.5ºF and highs of 13.2ºF. Average temperatures in February range from -22.7ºF to 13.7ºF. Finally, March has highs of 17.1ºF and lows of -20.6ºF.
October temperatures in Interior Alaska measure between 12.8ºF and 32.4ºF. November sees lows of -9.8ºF and highs of 17.3ºF. In December, temperature averages range between -21.1ºF and 11.2ºF. January brings highs of 9.2ºF and lows of -24.6ºF. February temperatures begin to warm up, but not by much. February lows sit at -15.9ºF, and highs sit at 16.3ºF. March temperatures range from -6.4ºF to 24.8ºF.
In South Central Alaska, October temperature lows measure 24.4ºF, and highs measure 44.6ºF. November temperatures range from 5.8ºF to 35.6ºF. In December, highs are reported to be 31.5ºF with lows at -10.6ºF. January produces temperatures between -7.0ºF and 30.0ºF. February highs sit at 32.8ºF, and lows sit at -1.0ºF. March averages reach up to 36.9ºF and down to 11.0ºF.
Southwest Alaskan Octobers report temperatures between 25.8ºF and 47.2ºF. Averages in November range from 15.2ºF to 39.6ºF. December highs measure 36.4ºF, and lows measure 7.8ºF. Surprisingly, January temperatures never reach below 0ºF. In fact, the lowest averages sit around 5.4ºF, and highs measure up to 35.4ºF. In February, temperature lows can be 7.6ºF, accompanied by highs of 36.0ºF. March averages are calculated between 11.3ºF and 38.3ºF.
Finally, Southeast Alaska has October temperatures ranging between 35.6ºF and 51.8ºF. November highs reach 44.5ºF, and lows reach 27.3ºF. December averages measure from 24.3ºF to 40.5ºF. In January, temperatures sit as low as 19.0ºF and as high as 38.9ºF. February bears average temperatures between 23.0ºF and 41.8ºF. March has highs of 44.0ºF and lows of 24.8ºF.
|Annual Temperature Averages||Arctic||Interior||South Central||Southwest||Southeast|
Earliest and Latest First Snow Ever Recorded
The overall earliest first snow in Alaska occurred on August 25th in Fairbanks, Alaska. The average date for the first snow in Fairbanks is October 2nd. The latest first snow fell in Annette, Alaska on February 25th. First snow dates in Annette average around November 22nd. However, early and late first snows differ across four regions in Alaska. Alaska is the largest state in the United States, meaning snowfall is distributed at different times according to distance from the coast, distance from the equator, and topography.
|Interior||West Coast||South Central||Southeast|
|Earliest||August 25th||August 30th||August 29th||September 15th|
|Latest||November 6th||November 28th||December 31st||February 25th|
|Average||September 26th to October 2nd||October 3rd to October 19th||October 4th to November 2nd||October 28th to November 22nd|
Description of First Snowfalls in Alaska
Alaskan snow is different throughout every region in both form and abundance. While Arctic and Interior Alaska are extremely cold, southern areas of Alaska aren’t unbearable in the winter. Winter is the longest season in Alaska with snow falling from October into early April. However, snow has been known to fall in the summer, too!
Average annual snowfall for Southeast Alaska measures anywhere from 34.8 to 163.9 inches, depending on the location. In the same way, South Central Alaskan snowfall can range from 77.9 to 325.3 inches. Southwest Alaska sees figures between 47.4 and 87.9 inches. In Interior Alaska, as little as 37.6 inches of snow can fall annually. On the other hand, Interior Alaska can see up to 76.7 inches. Snowfall reports have calculated between 45.8 and 97.9 inches of annual snowfall in Arctic Alaska.
Other distinct areas in Alaska receive hundreds of inches of snowfall per year. For instance, the snowiest area of Alaska, Thompson Pass, averages 551.5 inches of annual snowfall. Even more impressive, on December 29, 1955, 62 inches of snow were dumped on Thompson Pass in just 24 hours. Other notable snowy areas include Alyeska Ski Resort and Valdez, Alaska. Valdez sits at sea level, but it still receives 326 inches of annual snowfall. Alyeska Ski Resort averages 650 inches of annual snowfall, and in the winter of 2011, the season’s snowfall total measured 978 inches, which is 81.5 feet of snow!
Biggest Snowfall in Alaska
The biggest snowfall in Alaska occurred at the Mile 47 Camp station located near Valdez, Alaska. On February 7, 1963, approximately 78 inches of snow was reported to have fallen. Valdez, Alaska is known for being one of the snowiest areas of the state due to its proximity to Thompson Pass. When Valdez averages 326 inches of annual snowfall, it’s not impossible to comprehend that Mile 47 Camp station received 78 inches in a single day.
Blizzards in Alaska
Snowstorms in Alaska aren’t uncommon. Due to positive Pacific Decadal Oscillation, the Aleutian Low, and the Polar Jet Stream (see above), storms in Alaska are frequent and bring heavy amounts of snowfall. However, not all storms are equal in size and strength. Below describe some of the most notorious and fascinating blizzards to ever hit the state.
Thompson Pass, Alaska
As mentioned previously, Thompson Pass receives a shocking amount of annual snowfall, averaging 551.5 inches. However, on December 6, 2017, Thompson Pass received 40 inches of snow in a single day. At one point, 15 inches of snow accumulated in an hour and a half alone.
In the months of December and January in 2012, Cordova, Alaska had 18 feet of snow dumped on the city in 18 days! Many buildings were destroyed by the snowfall, and the city was left in state of emergency. As a result, the National Guard was ushered into Cordova to help clear roads and clean up businesses and homes.
St. Patrick’s Day Snowstorm
While St. Patrick’s Day should be filled with images of rainbows and leprechauns, March 17, 2002 filled Anchorage, Alaska with piles upon piles of snow. Approximately 29 inches of snow accumulated in Anchorage within just one day, and the rate of snowfall exceeded two inches per hour at some points during the storm.
On February 11th and 12th of 1966, Fairbanks, Alaska received 35 inches of snow. This event set the record for the most snow to hit Fairbanks in one snowstorm. Due to massive amounts of snow, workers struggled to control the aftermath. Unfortunately, there simply wasn’t enough space to move the colossal piles of snow anywhere.
“Valdez Snowmageddon” is but a nickname for the terrible snowstorm that terrorized Valdez, Alaska between December and January of 2012. Over 320 inches of snow fell on Valdez, and schools were closed, which is a rare event to occur in an area accustomed to heavy snowfall.
The Best Places to Enjoy Snow in Alaska
With all this talk about enormous amounts of snow, it would be amazing to see it up close and in person! The following describes some of the best and most popular ways to enjoy snowfall in Alaska.
Alyeska Ski Resort
Alyeska Ski Resort is unarguably one of the best resorts to visit in the United States. Numerous ski trails, restaurants, swimming pools, and lodging all characterize Alyeska as an incredible vacation spot. There are also popular surrounding cross-country ski trails, fit for both novices and experts.
While winter in Fairbanks is harsh and freezing, activities available to visitors are worth bearing the cold. Northern auroras are visible from Fairbanks for those wanting to see alluring colors waltz across the horizon. Museums, restaurants, and lodging are available to visitors looking to kick back and relax. For travelers who want to experience the powdery snow at its fullest, skiing, snowmobiling, and snowshoeing opportunities will bring their vacation to the next level.
Anchorage is gorgeous during winter months, and it’s the perfect destination for travelers looking to participate in winter activities in a city. Anchorage features amazing restaurants and hotels, ski trails, ice skating opportunities, live music, and so much more. In addition, travel to and from Anchorage is easy. Many modes of transportation exist that can take a visitor on an excursion outside the main city.
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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Does it snow year-round in Alaska?
Snow in Alaska typically begins in October and dissipates into early April. However, some areas in Alaska have experienced snow year-round.
What area of Alaska is the coldest?
The coldest region in Alaska is Arctic Alaska. Average temperature lows in Arctic Alaska measure -22.7ºF annually.
What is the snowiest city in Alaska?
The snowiest city in Alaska is Thompson Pass, which receives an average snowfall of 551.5 inches per year.
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