Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 2:06 PM on Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Warming trend may stick around for awhile

BY Hal Spence
For the Homer News

A warming trend state meteorologists think could hang on for a week or two is giving residents of the Homer area respite from the wallop of successive snow storms that struck Southcentral Alaska earlier this month.

Exactly how much snow has fallen since the beginning of the month is unclear; weather measuring equipment at Homer Airport does not record snow depth.

However, reports made to the National Weather Service by a resident living on the bluff behind Homer put snow accumulations at nearly 18 inches through Feb. 3, though somewhat more snow has fallen since then, according to state climatologist John Papineau.

Drifting was a major problem too, thanks to large pressure differentials over the Gulf of Alaska producing very high winds, Papineau said.

Climate models run by the weather service last fall predicted a cold winter, and so far that's largely proven true. Storms in early January dumped two feet of snow on the bluff above Homer between Jan. 10 and Jan. 13, according to the weather service. But then, air temperatures dropped dramatically, producing a severe cold snap that lasted until the storms of February arrived.

A high pressure zone over eastern Siberia and the Bering Strait was responsible, sending frigid air over the much of the state including Homer.

"At the Homer Airport it tied an all-time January record – a mean monthly temperature of 9.4 degrees," Papineau said, adding that Southeast is the only part of the state to have escaped the super cold.

Over the last several days, upper level high pressure over Western Canada has begun steering Pacific storms west of the Kenai Peninsula.

"When we are on the east side of those storms, we tend to be warmer, and there is plenty of warm air moving in," Papineau said.

A powerful storm moving up from the Gulf was expected to hit Bristol Bay by sometime Wednesday and could produce rainfall and perhaps some snow around Homer today, just as the Homer Winter Carnival is about to start.

Papineau said to expect cloudy conditions and some chance of rain or snow through Friday and Saturday, but fairly good weather on Sunday. Temperatures should be relatively mild.

Snow keeps crews working

The heavy snows of January and early February put a strain on Homer Public Works resources and personnel, said Director Carey Meyer.

"There's been a significant amount of overtime. We pulled and continue to pull people away from water and sewer operations to help with snow clearing," he said Tuesday. "We had several days last week when people put in 24 hours a day, went home and got some sleep and came back in and did it again."

Meyer said he celebrated Groundhog Day (Feb. 2) by watching the Bill Murray movie of the same name. Plowing snow off Homer area streets day after day last week produced the same sort of déjà vu, he said.

Public Works has a set snow-removal policy that focuses on the main arteries, along with hospital and school routes first, before hitting urban residential areas.

"There was at least one day when we were unable to get up hill all the way and clear out roads in the upper elevations," Meyer said. "But the following day we started early and got those cleared up along Skyline Drive."

Regrettably, the city has probably created more "driveway berms from hell" than usual, Meyer said, but when the snow is especially heavy, the snow gates plow drivers employ to prevent snow escaping the main plow are useless.

"We have had some issues with parked cars," he said. "We had to tow a few more than we like to."

Warming temperatures have given city workers a chance to catch up with snow removal and to shift efforts to correcting drainage problems, finding buried fire hydrants, glaciating standing water, and potholes Meyer said. Then there's breakup, still perhaps two months away, but a concern nevertheless.

"There have been years when we have feared breakup would be ugly and it hasn't' been, and other times when we thought we were going to get a pass, it all turns to mush and the ... gravel roads are impassable and paved roads start breaking apart." Meyer said.

Homer's budget year is the same as the calendar year, and with respect to the snowfall, that's a good thing, Meyer said, because the big snows fell the first of the year.

"We're working on a fresh budget," he said. "We are within the budget we have established. Assuming there is not too much more of this kind of snowfall, the budget should hold up for this year."

The Public Works budget set aside $179,000 for snow maintenance work this year. That's up $1,000 over last year, but well below the $197,000 spent two years ago.

"We have a pretty good track record of projecting costs and staying within them," he said. "But I expect we took a pretty good chunk out of the overtime for snow removal in the last two weeks."

If heavy snow arrives before the 2013 budget kicks in, however, the Homer City Council may have to OK adjustments, Meyer acknowledged.

With both Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre and Finance Director Craig Chapman attending a meeting outside, figures indicating how the heavy snowfall might be impacting the Kenai Peninsula Borough budget were unavailable.

Borough Roads Director Doug Schoessler said, however, that Homer and Seward got hammered by the recent snow storms, with Nikiski, the North Road and the Central Peninsula areas not far behind. The borough contracts with private plow companies to clear borough roads.

Now that the weather has changed, the borough, like plow drivers in Homer, are catching up.

"With the amount of snow in the Homer area, we're running out of places to put it," Schoessler said. On some of the narrower roads, that means less than two full lanes.

"It calls for a little courtesy, like pulling over into the driveway to let the other guy go by," he said.

Carl High, Alaska Department of Transportation District Superintendent for the peninsula, called the recent storms "horrendous and relentless," noting that Kodiak, Homer and Seward were "pasted."

He's pulled crews and equipment from other parts of the peninsula to help out around Homer. The overtime and even occasional double time isn't being kind to the budget.

"Our numbers are drifting into the red, but then, that's normal for this time of year," he said.

He praised his crews for keeping at it during the storms.

"I have to take my hat off to them, the dedication and self-sacrifice, giving up their personal time and putting their families on hold."