The Damalanche

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Alaskan weather seems to be all the news these days.  Mostly due to the crazy heat wave we are getting up here caused the same misbehaving jet stream that has the Eastern US in a freeze.  We were above freezing for nearly two weeks here in Anchorage, and just down the road in Girdwood they had a day where it reached 57°F.  Most of our December snows are melted, and the streets once frozen over by the melt now are dry and covered in dirt.  I take full blame for all this – it started the day I put snow tires on finally.

One danger with the warm weathers along some of the mountain roads, passes, or fjords is avalanches.  The rain and sun melt the top layers of snow until their heavy enough to break away down the side of the hills.  Many of the avalanche controls are working well around here, but there is only so much you can do.  It’s lead to one of the most concerning events in the news up here in Alaska (when you ignore politics).  That event has been called:  The Damalanche

The city of Valdez is currently cut off from Alaska Highway system due to several avalanches covering the Richardson Highway across Thompson Pass approximately 20 miles north of town.  Valdez, a city of about 4000 people, is known for three things – it is the terminus of the Trans-Alaskan pipeline, it was near where the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled millions of barrels of oil, and it is the snowiest place in North America (look it up – it gets 400-500 inches a year, they get double that of second place).  The town sits on Prince William Sound and while only about 100 miles from Anchorage as the crow flies, requires a 305 mile drive through the mountains to get to it by car.  Now – the only way to reach it is by ferry or plane (and with bad weather, that isn’t very possible).

What happen is that Valdez started their month with the typical 55 inches of snow fall, then got hit by warm / rainy weather over this past weekend.  Two avalanches in particular are the real problem, one that occurred naturally and the other set off by the Department of Transportation (DOT) to minimize the threats.  These two avalanches brought so much snow down that the road in that area is covered by as much as 50 feet of snow.  Worse, the snow is in the Lowe river next to the road and is as much as 100 feet high there.  That much snow has dammed the river so that 2,000 feet of road is covered in 10 to 15 feet of water.  So it’s not just an avalanche, its a dam; so it’s a Damalanche.

The road crews have huge challenges ahead of them.  For one thing, they can clear this road but where will they will have to haul it a long ways to put it anywhere — you’re in a mountain pass, you can’t just push a 50ft snow drift to the side.  Second, it’s January, so winter still has about three months to work itself through … that means snow is going to continue to fall on the pass and cover up any work they get done on any given day.

All kidding aside the road clearing has a scary situation developing.  Road crews can’t access the damalanche from the north, because there is 2,000feet of water covered road.  They can access it from the south, but if that snow gives way at the wrong time, you have all that water sitting behind the damalanche that will come out … and there’s no place to get out of the way.

Regardless, crews are working quickly and progress suggests they are getting things done.  Officially the DOT stated they could not determine when the road will open.  That being said, word is that the residents are taking it all in stride.  One guy pointed out that a majority of towns in Alaska don’t have roads connecting them and they all survive, so why can’t Valdez?  With nothing else to do with their time, Valdez representatives have turned it into a raffle – guess the date when the road will open correctly and you win $100.

So take some consideration when you are freezing to death down there in the Lower 48, being warm up here isn’t all fun and games.

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