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Fairbanks, AK - WX Impacts

Page history last edited by ~ 9 years, 8 months ago

 Welcome to Fairbanks, Alaska






    Fairbanks is sometimes mentioned as the “Heart of Alaska” due to its central location in the state. The city was founded on the banks of the Chena River, which leaks into the Tanana River just to the south of town. These rivers define the area by producing rolling hills to the north, west, and east of the town while to the south there are great views of the Alaska Range which includes Mount McKinley (Denali). The elevation rises slowly to the north and east, while to the south it rises more quickly to meet with the Alaska Mountain Range.  According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 84.6 km or 32.7 miles squared, 2.1km or 0.8 miles of this is water, or about 2.48 %.  The latitude is 64.5˚ N and 147.4˚ W making it about as far north as Oslo, Norway. By air, it is approximately 3.5 hours north of Seattle and 45 minutes north of Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska. [1]


       View of Alaska Range to south           Central location of Fairbanks         Tanana River Valley from the air


                                                                                                http://www.hospitalsoup.com                                    http://infotrek.er.usgs.gov                            http://www.yeraze.com


[1] http://www.cometofairbanks.com/bgeography.php




    The topography of Alaska is very distinct, and varies drastically from one end of the state to another. The southeast region is mountainous with peaks reaching 10,000 ft in height.  The South-central region runs next to the Gulf of Alaska and a portion of the Pacific Ocean. Southwestern Alaska is covered with woody areas, mountainous regions and includes the Alaska Peninsula. The western region is gigantic tundra filled with lakes and such rivers as the Yukon and Kuskokwim.  The Arctic Region extends north of the Seward Peninsula east to Canada.  Fairbanks, itself, is 445 feet above sea level and is located in a region known as Interior Alaska and is essentially surrounded by two large mountain ranges, the Alaska Range to the south and the Brooks Range to the north [2].  In fact, the 11 tallest mountains in the United States lay in these two mountain ranges, including Mt. McKinley, the tallest [2].  As a result of being located in this valley, between the two mountainous regions, most of the drainage of the Yukon comes from this region [2].  The two principal rivers in Interior Alaska are the Tanana, which is the river that Fairbanks is located on, and the Porcupine.  Most of Alaska’s non-mountainous interior is distinguished by artic tundra and wilderness.  There are even a few existing glaciers that still exist near the southernmost part of Interior Alaska, along the Alaska Range.  Since Alaska is the largest state within the United States, it comes as no surprise that its topography can be so distinct from region to region. In addition, due to Fairbanks’s long and cold winters, the soil, approximately 100cm below the surface, is permanently frozen.  This soil, rightfully named permafrost, can by 50 to 150 meters deep.  Although permafrost has existed in Fairbanks for nearly several thousand years, permafrost is currently thawing at an alarming rate. The thawing of permafrost could result in disruption of not only the local ecosystem and infrastructure, but the carbon cycle as well [3].


photo courtesy of: http://nrm.salrm.uaf.edu/~dverbyla/gradstudnets/dorte.html




[2] http://www.city-data.com/states/Alaska-Topography.html

[3] http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/essay_romanovsky.html




The City of Fairbanks is known as the "Golden Heart City”, and is home to 82,840 residents according to the Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska Statistics and Demographics [4]. The city center of Fairbanks is fairly thinly populated, as mainly locals in Fairbanks prefer to live on the outskirts of the city, close to the more scenic wilderness areas.


The overwhelmingly low population density of Fairbanks, AK can be seen below:





Relocation / Moving to Alaska. Demographic data Alaska. Best places to live in Alaska. Source: 2000 U.S. Census data



Average Sex and Age   Male   43,217 (52.17%)    Female   39,623 (47.83%)







One race                                                  94.61%

 Other Asian                                                               0.26%

White                                                        77.79%

Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander          0.3%

Black or African American                      5.85%

Native Hawaiian                                                        0.09%

American Indian/ Alaska Native             6.9%

Guamanian or Chamorro                                        0.08%

Asian                                                         2.08%

Samoan                                                                      0.07%

Asian Indian                                            0.14%

Other Pacific Islander                                               0.06%

Chinese                                                     0.3%

Vietnamese                                                                0.06%

Filipino                                                     0.58%

Some other race                                                        1.71%

Japanese                                                0.17%

Two or more races                                                    5.39%

Korean                                                     0.58%


















[4] U.S. Census Bureau



Transportation Systems




Photo courtesy of: http://dreamholidaydestinations.blogspot.com/2007_06_02_archive.htm


The Alaska Highway


    Excellent road accessibility links the Fairbanks North Star Borough to almost all of the state's major highway systems. Fairbanks serves as the transportation hub for vehicle traffic and freight entering and leaving interior Alaska [6].  This 1,523 mile Canadian-Alaskan highway was roughed out by American Army engineers in just seven months from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to the already completed Richardson Highway at Delta Junction, Alaska [5].  With the exception of the Glenn and Sterling highways, all major Alaska highways meet at or near Fairbanks [6].

Air Transportation


    Air transportation is the chief means of moving people around the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Mail and perishable food is typically moved by air. Air service also plays a major role in the movement of high value, time-sensitive items. The U.S. Postal Service Mail program provides much of this freight and passenger service as well to citizens of Fairbanks [5]. Airlines serve all major cities of Alaska, but most of the small towns and villages too. Small airfields rely on small air taxi, freight, and charter companies to get packages, items and people around the greater Alaskan terrain. The airport operates 24/7 servicing passengers and travelers in North America, Asia, and European destination


 Photo courtesy of: http://www.alaska.faa.gov/fai/images/TANVLY/FAI-INTL.gi




 Alaska Railroad


    Rail transport is expected to play an increasingly important role in meeting the Borough's future transportation needs. The Alaska Railroad, while officially a Class II freight railroad under jurisdiction of the federal Surface Transportation Board, does not physically connect Borough communities with track in Canada or other states. Instead, the Borough relies on rail-barge connections to remain part of the North American freight rail system. The Fairbanks North Star Borough has rail access to the ocean ports of Seward, Whittier and Anchorage [6].






Example of a rail schedule in Alaska…


Summer Schedule for the Denali Star


Denali Star Train - 2006 Summer Schedule
Read Down Mile City Read Up
8:15 AM 114.3 Achorage 8:00 PM
9:35 AM 159.8 Wasilla 6:15 PM
11:05 AM 226.7 Talkeetna 4:40 PM
3:45 PM 347.7 Denali 12:15 PM
8:00 PM 470.3 Fairbanks 8:15 AM


    As for times, the train leaves Fairbanks daily at 8:15 a.m., arriving in Denali Park at Noon. It makes the return trip at 3:45 from Denali and arrives back in Fairbanks at 8:15 p.m. This means if you are going to see anything at all at Denali, you may only want to take the train one way, or spend a night in the park [5].


Water Transportation


    Fairbanks is located on the banks of the Chena River.  Today, few commercial marine facilities exist in the Borough. Advances in aviation, road and rail transportation have for all practical purposes eliminated river travel as an important means of moving passengers and freight within the Borough [6].  In the past though, bulky freight was shipped down the Chena to the Bering Sea during winter when roads and dog sleds could not carry the heavy load across the state.


[5] http://fairbanks-alaska.com/transportation-fairbanks.htm

[6] http://www.dced.state.ak.us/dca/AEIS/FBS/Transportation/FBX_Transportation_Narrative.htm







    Fairbanks, Alaska’s ecosystem is the Boreal Forest ecosystem. The Boreal Forest is not a diverse ecosystem; there are fewer species of plants and animals than most other ecosystems. The few that do live in Fairbanks are built to with stand bitter cold winters and very short summers. They must deal with frequent fires as well. [1]



Map of the Boreal Area in Alaska

Photo courtesy of: http://wildlife.alaska.gov/aawildlife/ecosystems/eco_images/borealmap.jpg





    Because the winters are so long and cold, many birds simply migrate out of the area and return during the spring. The birds that do stay have pouches in their throats that they keep seeds in. Because during the winter night is longer than day, birds lose food foraging time. The seeds they keep in their throats keep them from starving. Other animals hibernate to escape the winter cold. These animals include both brown and black bears, jumping mice, wood frogs, and many different kinds of insects. Animals that don’t hibernate have insulation to keep them warm during the winter. Wolves and lynx both have very dense coats of fur to keep them warm and the ptarmigan grow several layers of down. Smaller animals use their surrounding to stay warm. Take, for example, voles that live under the snow during the winter. Fairbanks gets a lot of snow and as a result many of the animals have adapted to the snow. Caribous, the snowshoe hare, and others have developed snowshoes [2] to keep them from sinking into the snow. The large amounts of snow are also a problem for camouflaging animals. The forests in the other seasons are earthy tones of brown and green. In order to remain unseen, ermines and snowshoe hares change their fur from brown to white.




Bears and Snowshoe Hares are important members of the Boreal Forest ecosystem

                                                                                                                         Photo courtesy of: www.physicalgeography.net                Photo courtesy of: http://www.taiga.net/yourYukon/col250.jpg  



    The plants in Fairbanks must also be tough enough to stand up to heavy snow and the cold. Many of the trees, often evergreens, "are slender and conical shape[d] to help them shed snow" [8]. The majority of the ground soil during the winter is frozen. To combat this most of the trees in Fairbanks have shallow roots. "Black Spruce trees can grow in soil only 20 inches deep" [8].







Table 1: Monthly averages and extremes

calculated from years 1949 to 2007 [1].
  Montlhy Averages (F) Monthly Extremes (F)
  Max. Min. Highest Mean Lowest Mean
Jan -1.0 -18.7 18.1 -31.7
Feb 8.4 -13.8 15.9 -25.3
Mar 23.7 -2.9 27.1 -6.5
Apr 42.5 20.3 41.1 20.8
May 59.9 37.7 55.6 38.6
Jun 70.9 49.2 66.8 53.4
Jul 72.2 51.9 68.4 55.5
Aug 66.3 46.7 62.6 49.8
Sept 54.5 35.5 52.8 31.6
Oct 32.3 17.7 34.0 13.9
Nov 11.4 -4.9 20.1 -10.5
Dec 1.6 -15.3 7.6 -28.1



Table 2: The average and extreme
temperatures categorized by season
calculated from years [1].
Season Avg. Max. Temp. (F) Avg. Min. Temp. (F) Highest Mean (F) Lowest Mean (F)
Winter 3.0 -15.9 5.2 -20.8
Spring 42.0 18.4 37.3 20.7
Summer 69.8 49.3 64.5 56.0
Fall 32.7 16.1 33.0 18.0



Table 3: The monthly average of heating, cooling, and growing degree-days in 2007 [2].



Degree-Days Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sept Oct Nov Dec
Heating 2222 2009 2222 816 427 113 118 323 458 1026 2251 2077
Cooling 0 0 0 0 3 19 32 12 0 0 0 0
Growing 0 0 0 0 120 356 453 333 46 0 0 0



Table 4: Monthly averages of rainfall and snowfall for the year 2007 [2].



Precipitation Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sept Oct Nov Dec Annual
Rainfall (inches) 0.50 0.12 0.20 0.10 0.86 1.88 3.67 1.52 1.58 0.51 0.11 0.31 11.36
Snowfall (inches) 8.90 1.60 3.30 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.40 4.60 1.40 7.80 28.00





    There are three major factors that result in the subarctic weather typical of Fairbanks, Alaska.  These factors include latitude, location, as well as elevation. 

     Locations at high latitudes experience a greater seasonal variation in temperature as opposed to locations at low latitudes.  At high latitudes, the range of received solar radiation is relatively large.  Fairbanks, which is located at the high latitude of 64.84° N, is therefore known to experience significant seasonal variability.

     In addition to its high latitude, Fairbanks, which is located in an area of Alaska called the Inferior, is located inland, away from the Alaska’s 6,640 miles of coastline.  Areas that are located along the coast tend to have a relatively small seasonal variability due to the ocean waters that serve as a sort of “temperature moderator.”  However, Fairbanks is located essentially in the middle of the state, and thus is removed from the moderating waters and as a result experiences a continental climate.  A continental climate tends to have a large temperature range (both daily and annual), overall low humidity, and notably light and irregular precipitation. 

     Lastly, the elevation of Fairbanks has a significant effect on its climate.  Fairbanks tends to experience the bitterly cold temperatures on winter and the relatively high temperatures of summer that are typical of areas situated at low elevations.  Due to it dependably cold wintertime temperatures, Fairbanks is an ideal location for cold-weather testing as well as subarctic research. [3]




                                                                        [4]               [5]                  

                                                                              Winter temperatures in Fairbanks, Alaska                                                    but summertime temperatures can reach

                                                                                                              can get to seemily unbearable lows.....                                                                warm and comfortable highs.








    Fairbanks is located at a crossroads between mainland North America and the rest of Alaska. It serves as a hub for transportation, trade, and supply. The economy is largely based on these sectors. The presence of Fort Wainwright and Eielson Air Force Base serve as an additional economic driving force for the city, with over 20 percent of the population composed of military personnel. These two bases contribute $390.9 million dollars to the economy annually. Like the rest of Alaska, Fairbanks does not have much manufacturing and instead ships in completed goods from elsewhere. Tourism and mining round out the economy, with Alaska’s largest active gold mine located just north of the city [9].


Economic Charachteristics of Fairbanks





Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and mining









Wholesale trade



Retail trade



Transportation and warehousing, and utilities






Finance, insurance, real estate, and rental and leasing



Professional, scientific, management, administrative, and waste management services



Educational, health and social services



Arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food services



Other services (except public administration)



Public administration









Private wage and salary workers



Government workers



Self-employed workers in own not incorporated business



Unpaid family workers





Land Use


    Fairbanks is the second largest and populated town in Alaska. The city is mainly a residential community with an abundance of wildlife and nature that brings in travelers all year long. [11] A few of the many tourist attractions include botanical gardens, riverboat tours, the University of Alaska Museum of the North [12], Gold Rush mine tours and Northern Light viewings [13]. Located near the Chena River, the waterways were historically used as transportation in Fairbanks, but now they are used for recreational boating, fishing, and hunting. Many travelors and vacationers come to Fairbanks to see the natural landscape. The rest of the land is a fully functional, modern, American town that is home to about 82,000 people.





A List of Things To Do in Fairbanks, AK:


   Chena Lakes Rec. Area  

   El Dorado Gold Mine Tour

   Gold Dredge #8

   Large Animal Research Center

   Northern Alaska Tour Co.

   Pioneer Park

   Riverboat Discovery

   University of Alaska Museum

   North Star Golf Club [15] 

Riverboat Tanana Chief on the Chena River, Fairbanks, Alaska





 photo courtesy of: Greatland River Tours [14]





Kara Kopija kkopija2


Lightning is a very dangerous phenomenon anywhere in the world. Lightning is an electrical discharge in the atmosphere, or a form of static electricity. It can occur within clouds, between clouds, or between a cloud and the ground. About 80% of the lightning strikes do not hit the ground, but some still do. Lightning occurs because of electrical fields in the Earth and the clouds on a molecular level. There are positive and negative charged particles that interact with each other, and once the current in an area of a cloud reaches about 3 million volts/meter a ground strike lightning bolt will begin. The electrons in the cloud start to move around and will start to take a path downwards to the ground.  The charges can take several different paths creating the distinct “forked” look of lightning. [16]





                                                                        Wildfires Started in Alaska due to Lightning [17]                                                                                                                                       "Forked" formation [18]


About 97% of the acreage lost to wildfires in Alaska is due to lightning strikes. The National Weather Service has recorded about 26,000 cloud-to-ground strikes per year, and in a very active thunderstorm there can be up to 2,000 – 5,000 strikes just in that storm. These occur most often in the late afternoon during June and July. The most active lightning cloud-to-ground strike area in Alaska is in the White Mountains, just north of Fairbanks. [16]




[16] http://pajk.arh.noaa.gov/lightning.php

[17] http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Newsroom/NewImages/images.php3?img_id=16583

[18] http://www.srh.noaa.gov/ffc/images/swaw06_lightning3.jpg







Kara Kopija kkopija2


Numerous forest fires were burning in the Yukon Flats region of east-central Alaska in mid-June 2004. The fires were burning in the wake of an incredibly active week of lightning, with a record-breaking single-day total of 8,500 strikes on June 14, followed by another 6,200 strikes the next day (according to local news reports). This image from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on  the Aqua satellite shows some of the largest, most rapidly growing fires on June 20. Areas where MODIS detected fires are outlined in red [L1].


In the picture shown above, there are many fires started by lightning strikes throughout Alaska, about 97% of natural losses are due to lightning cloud-to-ground strikes. This is fairly common in Alaska because of the large amount of natural landscape. On June 20, 2004 this satellite image was taken and showed the locations of fires caused by a very active week of lightning activity. 


                                                                                                                         Lightning Strikes vs. Wildfire Starts [L2]



The graph shown above describes the positive correlation to wildfires and lightning strikes. Naturally, the more lightning that touches the ground the more chance there is for a fire to start.




[L1]   http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Newsroom/NewImages/images.php3?img_id=1658


[L2]    http://ams.confex.com/ams/pdfpapers/85059.pdf






By: Steven Johnson, sjohnso8


    Instinctively, many people would assume that blizzards would be a commonplace occurrence in Fairbanks, Alaska.  The city is located in a very cold climate relative to the rest of the United States, especially the Midwest, where blizzard conditions occur frequently.  However, this is not the case.

    Blizzard conditions are defined by the National Weather Service’s criteria for issuing blizzard warnings.  These conditions include winds exceeding 30 knots (35 mph) as well as falling or blowing snow that could reduce visibility to less than a quarter of a mile for at least three hours.  While Alaska is cold, the snowfall in Fairbanks rarely meets these two criteria.

    In Fairbanks, snowfall of over 4 inches a day only occurs three times during an average winter.[19]  However, wind speeds rarely reach the required velocity to justify the declaration of blizzard conditions.  To the west, storm systems passing to the south result in strong easterly winds coming off the mountain ranges of Alaska, creating frequent blizzards. [19] Fairbanks, though, is located in between mountain ranges, which severely limits its ability to generate extreme winds.  In fact, on February 29, 2008, Fairbanks recorded a peak wind gust of 44 mph, which was the windiest day in Fairbanks in three years. [20] The fact that that peak gust was only 9 mph faster than conditions required for a blizzard shows you how rare blizzards are for the interior of Alaska and Fairbanks. 


Photo of blizzard in Nome, Alaska courtesy of: www.tomsnome.com



[19] http://www.farmersalmanac.com/weather-alaska

[20] http://climate.gi.alaska.edu/Statewide/departures.html



Cold Waves


A cold wave occurs when unusually cold air flows into a region. Most common in winter, cold waves originate as high pressure arctic airmasses. Long winter nights, clear skies, and reflective snow cover all enhance surface cooling at high latitudes. A large dip in the jestream  then carries this cold air south. One must note that temperature criteria for a cold wave differ drastically by region. Cold waves are defined by significantly lower than normal temperatures for a given area.


Fairbanks is at a high latitiude (64.5° N), and therefore experiences average wintertime temperatures well below zero °F. A cold wave in Fairbanks may have temperatures from -40°F to less than -70°F. Vehicles and other machinery fail at these temperatures, interrupting the residents’ daily routines and impeding the local economy. Additionally, cold waves in Fairbanks make conditions favorable for ice fog formation.  [T6]


Case Study:  The 1989 Alaska Cold Wave     



     In January of 1989, Alaska experienced two weeks of extreme cold statewide. A mass of cold air formed just north of Alaska in the Beaufort Sea, and was pushed into the state by a high pressure ridge from Siberia. Cold air is very dense, so once this frigid high pressure system moved over Alaska it refused to budge. The high pressure system was so strong that it set a new barometric pressure record for North America, 1078.44 millibars. Although the cold wave failed to break the statewide low temperature record of   -80°F, local records were broken across the state. Low temperatures from -40°F to -70°F were experienced for days at a time, with Fairbanks bottoming out at -51°F. [21] [22]

     The extreme cold brought Fairbanks and much of the state to a standstill. At these temperatures, fan belts in cars snapped, oil and gas solidified, and the ice fog became so thick that visibility was reduced to feet. Most residents opted to stay home and wait it out instead of risking the dangers of cold exposure. As the chart below shows, exposed flesh would experience frostbite after 10 minutes at -40°F temperatures. Colder temperatures and wind can reduce the freeze time to seconds. [21][22]  




  Wind Chill Chart  [23]  










Heat Waves




Frequency and time of the year: Fairbanks is not known for its high frequency of heat waves. To be frank, from 1949 to 2003 the average annual air temperature only increased by 3.3 F. [1]  Yet the last couple of summers are scorching Alaska with record high numbers. More importantly these heat waves are destroying many of Alaska’s glaciers and permafrost. If this permafrost is to thaw anytime soon it would put many things in jeopardy such as: tree growth, roads, pipelines, etc. [1]



Unique Aspect: The average annual high temperature in Fairbanks is 36.7 F, making heat waves a rare and welcome occurence. [3]



Development: While Global Warming in general causes Heat Waves in Alaska, Fairbanks in particular has been proven to experience the “Urban Heat Island Effect. The following are a few ways in which this process occurs:



1.)    Natural land cover with pavement, buildings, and other infrastructure

2.)    Displacement of trees and vegetation

3.)    Tall buildings and narrow streets can heat it trapped between them and reduce air flow

4.)    Waste heat from vehicles, factories, and air conditioners may add warmth






Heat wave aftermath: While there is no specific “aftermath” of a heat wave, in Fairbanks learning about and preventing global warming will help in the reduction of heat waves. First and foremost controlling the release of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” will help tremendously. In our own homes we can switch to energy-efficient lighting, improve efficiency of home appliances, and reduce heat and cooling use. [4]





[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/from-permafrost-to-permatan-alaska-basks-in-record-heat-503050.html

[2] http://www.epa.gov/hiri/about/index.html

[3] http://www.alaska.com/about/weather/story/4481284p-4773631c.html

[4] http://eartheasy.com/article_global_warming.htm






Daniel Guevara

Photo Courtesy of: lo-oxo.spaces.live.com/blog/cns!3AE05DB3FDF34BF8!754.entry



Thunderstorms do not occur uniformly over the state. Very few, if any, are recorded north of the Brooks Range. Of the few preferred areas, the most extensive thunderstorm formation occurs in the mountainous region between the Yukon and Tanana rivers, extending into Lake Minchumina [T1].  Residents of Fairbanks fall in this active thunderstorm region.


Frequency of Thunderstorms


Precipitation normally reaches a minimum in spring and a maximum in August, when rainfall is common [T2]. During summers in Fairbanks, there are an average of eight thunderstorm days  [T3]. Thunderstorms are about three times more frequent over the hills to the north and east of Fairbanks. Damaging hail or wind rarely accompanies thunderstorms around Fairbanks [T4].


Development of Thunderstorms


 Photo Courtesy of: http://www.gi.alaska.edu/ScienceForum/ASF3/324.html





The type of thunderstorm found in Alaska are mostly isolated airmass thunderstorms. The life cycle of a thunderstorm cell begins with upward-moving air creating a cumulus cloud. The mature stage in a thunderstorm's life cycle is characterized by maximum rain, electrical effects, and wind gusts at the Earth's surface, which is triggered by descending air that is cooled by the water vapor in the air and thereby becomes much heavier than the air outside the cloud, accelerating the downdraft [T7].  Finally the updrafts and the lightning cease and the tall cloud dissipates [T5].


Severe thunderstorms require four elements to form, and they are the following:  (1) source of moisture, (2) conditionally unstable atmosphere, (3) a mechanism to trigger the thunderstorm’s updraft, either through lifting, or heating of the surface, and (4) vertical wind shear—a rapid change in wind speed and/or wind direction with altitude [T6].  Destructive thunderstorms develop most often in an environment characterized by large conditional instability and strong vertical wind shear, though this is not common in Fairbanks and the greater state of Alaska . Thunderstorms  in Fairbanks are  airmass  thunderstorms and vertical wind shear destroys them.



Unique aspects of Thunderstorms in Fairbanks



Forest fires raging across Alaska on August 14, 2005

Photo Courtesy of: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Newsroom/NewImages/images.php3?img_id=17003


  • Many Alaskan forest fires are caused by lightning from the discrete cauliflower type of cumulus clouds during summertime thunderstorms


  • Because these fires often remain undetected for a long time, they account for most of the forest acreage burned (about 1 million acres per year) [T8].


  • A single thunderstorm lasts roughly 20 minutes


    Lasting Impacts from Thunderstorms


    Power surges


    During thunderstorms, lightning strikes can suddenly expose a home's electrical circuit to a large surge of energy, adversely affecting electrical equipment. Blackouts are also possible.


    Damage to structures


    United States insurance company statistics show one homeowner's damage claim for every 57 recorded lightning strikes. In the United States, lightning annually causes more than 26,000 fires, with damage to property in excess of $5 billion to $6 billion (source: NLSI).




    Lightning can kill people who are inside a modern building and talking on the telephone, bathing or showering, washing at the kitchen sink, touching electrical appliances, or touching or near a metal door or window.

    Source provided by:  http://www.vdem.state.va.us/threats/thunderstorm/basics.cfm




    Photo Courtesy of: http://www.city-data.com/forum/alaska/147030-alaska-s-many-seasons-2.html



    [T1, 8] http://www.gi.alaska.edu/ScienceForum/ASF1/155.html


    [T2, 3, 4] http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_gx5222/is_2004/ai_n19142910/pg_1


    [T5, 7] http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.gi.alaska.edu/ScienceForum/ASF3/images/324.gif&imgrefurl=http://www.gi.alaska.edu/ScienceForum/ASF3/


    [T6] Severe & Hazardous Weather, second edition, by Robert M. Rauber, John E. Walsh, and Donna J. Charlevoix; copyright 2002, 2005






    Lauren Lilly 




    Photo Courtsey of:   http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/tfx/hydro/FAW/ManyGlacierSmall.png




      Besides weather hazards associated with subarctic weather, Fairbanks, Alaska is also at risk for flooding. Fairbanks, like many other Alaskan communities, is located near rivers.  Fairbanks is situated near two major water sources, the Chena River and the Tanana River.  Flooding in Fairbanks is caused mostly by rapid rainfall and melting snow [F1]. 



    Types of Floods


    Flash Floods

                 Although rare, floods that do occur due to rapid rainfall typicall of the summer [F1].  

    Such rapid rainfall can result in flash flooding.  Flash floods are typically caused by slow-moving thunderstorms that dump an abnormally large amount of rain over a particular area. Heavy rainfall into the Chena River can result in such floods.  Flash floods, as the name suggests, occur rapidly and often with little warning.  The worst flood in Fairbanks’s history, the flood of 1967, was caused by a flash flood that originated from abnormally high rainfall.





    Snowmelt Floods         

         A more common cause of flooding in Fairbanks is due to melting snow [F1]. Floods due to melting snow are better forecast than flash floods, and thus fatalities tend to be less in snowmelt floods.  With the onset of spring, the jetstream (a narrow strip of fast moving air) and developing storms shift towards the north, allowing the arrival of warm air.  The combination of the warm air as well as rain allows the snow to melt, producing runoff. Annually, Fairbanks can receive about 29 inches of snow; when this still-thick blanket of snow melts, flooding can result.  The flooding is exacerbated due to the still frozen state of the soil. The water is unable to be absorbed into ground and accumulation of standing water results. The risk of flooding is significantly increased if heavy rainfall accompanies the thawing of the snow.  



    Photo courtsey of:  http://www.zeffa.com/togiak_files/13_10.jpg


    General Flood Facts:


    • Flooded-related events cause more fatalities than any other natural disaster [F2].


    • The majority of flood-related deaths occur within vehicles [F2].


    • A mere inch of water can result in expensive property damage [F3].


    • Flash floods can produce 10 to 20 feet high walls of water [F3].


    • Two feet of water can carry a car away [F3]

    Case Study:  The 1967 Flood      

     Lauren Lilly


          During the August of 1967, one of the most devastating events in Fairbanks history occurred:  the flood of 1967.  The summer of that year started off fairly dry as the city received only 1.10 inches of rain in June [F4].  This amount of rainfall is relatively dry as the average amount of June precipitation is 1.39 inches.  However, in July, the seemingly dry conditions quickly changed as a low pressure system north of Alaska formed while a high pressure system developed in the north Pacific [F4].  At a low pressure system, convergence of air particles tends to occur at the surface.  The converging of the air particles at the surface causes the rise of air particles slightly above the surface.  This rising column of air, once it cools, can form clouds and precipitation can develop. Thus, in July, Fairbanks received a surprising 3.34 inches, nearly twice its normal [F4].  The wet conditions worsened in August.  The pressure systems deepened, allowing the flow of more moist air.  Additionally, a tropical system was weakening near the time of the 1967 flood; this system is said to be the true cause of precipitation that resulted in the monumental flood [F4].  Due to the present pressure systems, the moist, already rising air was forced to rise even more due to the Alaska Range and Kuskokwim Mountains [F4] . 




    Photo courtesy of:  http://www.gi.alaska.edu/ScienceForum/ASF1/177.html



         August 1967 was when the most significant damage occured.  The normal precipitation rate of August is 2.20 inches [F4]In August 1967, within eight days, ten inches of rain fell; ten inches is about the average annual amount of rainfall expected for Fairbanks [F5].  The abnormally high rainfall flooded both the Chena and Tanana Rivers, resulting in 95% of Fairbanks being underwater and at least $85 million in damages [F6]. A total of 12,000 people were forced from their homes and six people died [F6].



     1967 picture of the Winter Bridge over Chena River in Fairbanks.





    Photo courtsey of:  http://www.sitnews.net/JuneAllen/Fairbanks/080703_fairbanks_flood.html


    Taken on August 15, 1967, this picture shows a flooded downtown Fairbanks. 

    The arrow indicates the flow of the water.

    Photo courtsey of:  http://www.sitnews.net/JuneAllen/Fairbanks/080703_fairbanks_flood.html




    Chena River Lakes Control Project

         The flood of 1967 prompted action by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.  After the devastating flood, the Corp of Engineers sought to take out Fairbanks most detrimental threat- the Chena River.  In a venture called the Chena River Lakes Flood Control Project, flood gates were developed to control the flow of water in the river.  The engineers designed the 20,000-acre gates in such a way that the waters of the Chena River flowed toward the Tanana River [F7].  Due to the large size of the gate, the Chena waters have only emerged with the Tanana water once in 2003 [F7].  In addition to the gates the Moose Creek Dam, Tanana River levee, and four additional floodgates were part of the project [F7].  The entire project was completed by 1979 [F7]. 

         The Chena River Project has been a resounding success.  It has saved the city from possible floods; in particular, the project protected the city from a potentially destructive flood in 2003.  In July 2003, about three inches of rain fell on Fairbanks [F7].  It is estimated that that amount of rainfall would have put downtown Fairbanks under several feet of water [F7].








    The floodgates of the Chena River Lakes Control Project that help control the flow 

    of the Chena River.  The man standing on top of the gates is

    John Schaake, manager of the project.

     Photo courtsey of:  http://www.gi.alaska.edu/Scienceforum/ASF16/1663.htm



    [F1]:  http://www.gi.alaska.edu/ScienceForum/ASF0/035.html

    [F2]:  http://aprfc.arh.noaa.gov/resources/docs/apmission.html

    [F3]:  http://www.floodsmart.gov/floodsmart/pages/flood_facts.jsp

    [F4]:  http://www.gi.alaska.edu/ScienceForum/ASF1/177.html

    [F5]:  http://seagrant.uaf.edu/features/earthquake/hazards2.html

    [F6]:  http://www.ak-prepared.com/plans/pdf_docs/StateHazardMitigationPlan07/5-2%20Floods.pdf

    [F7]:  http://www.gi.alaska.edu/ScienceForum/ASF1/177.html




    El Nino and Fairbanks Alaska

                El Nino is defined as “large climate disturbances which are rooted in the Pacific Ocean and occur every 3 to 7 years”. [1] Basically the temperature of the ocean increases by a couple of degrees. These disturbances cause an increase in temperatures around the world. The temperature in Fairbanks is increased by El Nino.
                During an El Nino, the southeastern states of America become colder and the northwestern states become warmer and a high pressure system sets up over western Canada and southeast Alaska. The high pressure systems over Canada and Alaska cause the warm Aleutian storm track to bend towards southcentral Alaska (this is where Fairbanks is located) and southwest Alaska. The Aleutian storm track is normally situated over southeast Alaska and western Canada. When the storm track is over southeast Alaska and Canada, the jet stream carries storms down towards the United States mainland. This causes the Alaskan mainland to become cold. During El Nino, the off track storm track carries warm air over southcentral and southeast Alaska. The past 8 El Ninos have resulted in warmer than usual temperatures for Fairbanks. [2]

                                                                                                                                      Maps of Alaska provided http://www.e-foreclosuresearch.com/images/maps/alaska.gif

                Fairbanks Alaska’s ecosystem is the Boreal Forest. The Boreal Forests in North America remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere when the weather in the spring is warm with lots of rain. El Nino causes Fairbanks and the area around it to be warmer and moister than normal. The Boreal forests that surround Fairbanks are taking in even more carbon dioxide. [3] In 1998, a major El Nino year occurred. The amount of carbon dioxide taken in by those forests in Fairbanks was greatest in 1998. This is because the warm weather made the trees and other plants “leaf-out” earlier. [4]
                Animals living in Fairbanks are also affected by El Nino. During the 1982 El Nino year, a study was conducted on red foxes. The primary food source for these animals was birds. In 1982, the population of the birds went down; they were affected by El Nino. The birds’ primary food sources were marine animals that either migrated to find better temperatures or died off because of the increasing water temperatures. Two things happened when the primary food source disappeared: the foxes changed their primary food and their mating practices changed. If one food source disappears, then the animals must look for another in order to survive. In this case they switched to another type of bird that was more abundant. The change in the food supply also caused the foxes to change their mating practices. This study observed 15 reproductive groups of foxes. In 1980 and 1981, the majority of these groups were polygamous, with one male mating with multiple female foxes. During El Nino and after the loss of their primary food source, the groups became monogamous. The male only mated with one female and the rest helped raise the pups. This led to a reduced population of red foxes. [5]






     Many people consider droughts to be a rare event when in fact they are a normal and recurrent feature of the climate.  Drought implies a lack of moisture for an extended period of time which in turns causes a deficit of moisture in the soil.  For areas which receive high amounts of precipitation, a condition of drought can develop more rapidly than in an area which doesn't receive high amounts of precipitation.  Many problems can arise due to droughts, including crop damage and water supply shortage. Drought severity depends mostly on the degree of the deficiency, the time period, and the size of the area affected.  The timing is also a significant factor with the onset/duration of droughts.  The primary season in which it occurs, delays in the beginning of the normal rainy time periods, and rain events occurring relative to the growth stage of crops are examples of this timing [1].


    Abnormally Dry (D0) conditions are now being seen in the Tanana Valley of Alaska (around Fairbanks which is in the highlighted area below), where recent above-normal temperatures coupled with below-normal rainfall have led to area topsoil moisture levels being rated as 60% short and 40% adequate [2].




    (Figure A. shows the drought conditions of Alaska for April 15, 2008 and the evolution of drought throughout the year. Figure B. is a graph of the percentage of drought affected areas since May of 2007 to the present and figure C shows the current percentage) [3].










        There are four perspectives on drought: meteorological, agricultural, hydrological, and socioeconomic. The drought in Fairbanks, AK is best described as a meteorological drought because it is usually defined by the measure of the departure of precipitation from the normal and the duration of the dry period. The definition of the agricultural perspective of droughts can also be applied to the drought in Fairbanks since it refers to situations in which the moisture in the soil is no longer sufficient to meet the needs of the crops growing in the area. Warming temperatures are already having an impact on the residents, wildlife and landscape of Alaska. It is difficult to predict the regularity of droughts in general, but with the effects of global warming it is evident that there will be an increase of drought in Fairbanks. With this increase of regularity the intensity will also rise and can led to more severe weather conditions such as wildfires [4].



    [1.] http://droughtoutlook.com/drought.html

    [2.] http://www.drought.unl.edu/dm/archive/2000/drmon0627.htm

    [3.] http://www.drought.gov

    [4.] http://www.nrdc.org/globalWarming/fcons.asp





    Tornadoes puntch2



    To Fairbanks, tornadoes are more of a myth than a threat.  Since records started being kept in Alaska, there have only been 4 confirmed tornadoes which have been extremely weak, all EF0’s. None of these tornadoes have been recorded near the Fairbanks area, those that do occur form near the southern coast of Alaska.





    Tornadoes need very specific conditions to develop.  An abundance of moist air at the surface must be present in addition to a layer of cooler, drier air aloft.  These conditions cause an extremely unstable atmosphere. Then, something such as a cold front or any low-level convergence of winds will lift this air aloft. Heating from the sun will cause heat to rise and form an updraft into the storm which allows it to grow. These conditions often give rise to severe supercell thunderstorms .  The convergence of air masses will cause rotation. The updraft will interact with these winds causing a large rotating column of air called a mesocyclone which will punch through the top of the supercell creating an overshooting top. This mesocyclone acts as a stabilizing force for the super cell allowing for a longer existence. Next, a strong downdraft forms at the rear of the storm known as a rear-flank downdraft. Between the updraft and the downdraft, a deep area of low pressure is created which causes surrounding air to be sucked in to the vortex,  creating the tornado. 








    The reasons for which tornadoes have an extremely difficult time developing in Fairbanks are as follows:




    Fairbanks is in a sub-arctic climate with the warmest average temperatures of 70 degrees Fahrenheit occurring in June and July . Because of this there is usually not enough heat to be uplifted from the surface to produce a proper thunderstorm.





    Fairbanks' location in the center of the state places it far away from the weather systems which come off the ocean, and thus far awayfrom  precipitation and humidity in general.  Surface dew point temperatures must be above 55 degrees for a severe thunderstorm to form, and this rarely happens.


    Frontal Boundaries:


    If there is ever cold, dry air flowing over moist, tropical air in Fairbanks, there are rarely upper level disturbances to cause a thunderstorm, and when a thunderstorm does form, it is not strong enough to produce a tornado.


    Tornadoes used to be ranked using the Fujita scale but since 2007 tornadoes have been ranked using the Enhanced Fujita Scale, seen below:


    Enhanced Fujita Scale














    When the temperature gets below minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, Fairbanks will often become covered in ice fog. Ice fog is produced when water vapor meets freezing cold air that cannot hold any more water. In Fairbanks, ice fog is produced by many sources. Cars and other vehicles produce 3% of the water vapor needed to produce ice fog. When water vapor comes out of the car’s tailpipe it is very warm. It then runs into at least minus thirty degrees Fahrenheit air which causes it to cool down to minus thirty in a matter of seconds. Such rapid cooling or water quickly forms ice particles. Billions of the ice crystals come together to form ice fog. The bigger culprit is the cooling water that local power plants dump into rivers. The residents of Fairbanks also contribute by exhaling and sweating. [1]
    Picture courtsey of  www.okay.com                                                                                                          Picture courtsey of colwillphotos.atspace.com/blog/blog.html
    Another contributing factor to ice fog is the topography of Fairbanks. The hills in Fairbanks combined with the temperature inversions trap the ice fog in a box of sorts. People living on the hills often experience much warmer weather than the people living in the low lands.[1]
                Carl Benson, a professor at the Geographical Institute describes ice fog as “cotton-candy like clouds that hang over the roads.”[1] Ice fog goes away in two ways. It either “mixes with the warm air at the ‘lid’ of the inversion” and becomes water vapor or “[it] falls out like rain.” [1]













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