Snowless in Anchorage

Alaskan skiers bemoan a dry winter; plumbers, skaters, and moose rejoice

SURE, the shovels are out in Buffalo, N.Y., and houses are falling into rain-soaked sinkholes in San Francisco. But Alaska also deserves a little sympathy - and maybe a little stormy weather too.

Abnormal weather patterns are making this one of Alaska's driest years since the 1920s. In Anchorage, the result has been an oddly brown landscape full of forlorn skiers, bursting water pipes, and some very satisfied moose.

For a state of rugged individuals whose love for snow borders on the religious, this winter is a bust. Anchorage usually has two feet of accumulated snow by now. It is about 17 inches behind schedule. This means that the city's hordes of cross-country skiers have been forced to do circuits on frozen lakes and a short loop of manmade snow at Kincaid Park - the equivalent of Californians going to a tanning salon.

To Alaskan high schoolers, winter is a time to hone the skills that have helped them dominate national cross-country skiing competitions for years. But now, many say they may lose the edge they usually hold over their Lower 48 rivals.

''Some people are starting to get so bummed out that they're starting to ditch their training,'' says Rob Whitney, a Service High School ski-team member, after a dull practice at the Kincaid loop.

Like their cross-country cousins, alpine skiers are starting to look at snow reports down south - say, in New York or Idaho - and ski-related businesses are suffering. The Japan-based Seibu Group has invested some $70 million in recent years at its Alyeska Ski Resort, but is facing a Christmas holiday with a man-made base on only a few lower runs.

Other losers in this drought are dog mushers - who now train their teams in all-terrain vehicles instead of sleds - and snowplowing businesses. And mice, which normally burrow into snowdrifts to keep warm, are invading homes.

Yet a musher's loss is a plumber's gain. The snow that usually insulates underground water pipes is gone, bringing plumbers a rush of emergency repairs to burst pipes. Ice skaters, too, can enjoy glides on snow-free lakes.

Also enjoying the weird weather are the city's moose, free to roam and munch plants without the hindrance of snowdrifts. Last year's heavy snows forced the animals onto roads, ski trails, and railroad tracks, setting up dangerous clashes between moose and men.

Many meteorologists believe Alaska is feeling the effects of the end of an El Nino cycle, a complex pattern of warm currents in the Pacific. The cycle's end typically brings Alaska a wet summer and fall followed by a cold, dry winter, says David Vonderheide of the National Weather Service. So far, 1995 is true to form. The state's south-central section was hit by fall floods even before the no-snow winter struck. A prolonged cold snap - with temperatures dipping below minus 60 degrees in interior Alaska - has precluded precipitation for most of the state in recent weeks.

Some meteorologists are predicting a repeat of the 1985-86 winter drought, a skier's and musher's nightmare, Mr. Vonderheide says. ''We get a winter like this about once every decade,'' he notes.

The prospect has made some top government officials take notice.

Anchorage Mayor Rick Mystrom - who has promoted the use of decorative lights to combat winter depression - recently announced an ice-grooming program at a local lake, providing a recreation alternative for frustrated skiers.

And Gov. Tony Knowles (D), an avid skier, professed sympathy for Anchorage's recreation plight but joked: ''Look at the bright side.... The streets have never been clearer this time of the year.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.