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Snowverloaded: Kenai Peninsula residents deal with extended winter

Lisa Parker looks at how much energy her solar panels are producing from an app on her phone. This year, they didn't start until mid-April.
Sabine Poux
Lisa Parker looks at how much energy her solar panels are producing from an app on her phone. This year, she didn't see production spike until April.

Since the first big winter storms hit late last year, snow on the western Kenai Peninsula has collapsed roofs, broken gas meters and ramped up the risk of avalanches in the mountains.

This winter has been a bigger snow year than usual. The western Kenai Peninsula saw between 95 and 100 inches this winter, said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist based out of the University of Fairbanks.

Much of that snow, around 30-40%, fell during two weeks in December, when a series of big storms hit the area.

“I think we can safely say that this was the most snow in any winter for the northwest Kenai Peninsula since the winter of 2011, 2012,” he said.

And now it’s all taking longer to melt, because it’s been such a cold April, according to measurements from an automated SNOTEL station northeast of Sterling.

“The amount of snowpack remaining there is higher than any other year, since 1989” at this point in the season, Thoman said.

Snow wasn’t distributed evenly across the peninsula this winter. This April, Turnagain Pass and Girdwood are measuring below-normal levels of snow, Thoman said.

“Kind of the eastern Kenai Peninsula area there never caught up,” he said.

The National Weather Service warns of an above-average risk of flooding along Alaska's major winters this winter as the snowpack continues to melt. Meanwhile, on the central peninsula, the lingering season is impacting residents in a myraid places.

On roofs

Lisa Parker knows exactly when the seasons changed.

“I can say, officially, that spring finally arrived April 15 this year. Because that’s when my panels finally started generating power,” she said.

Sabine Poux
As of April 27, the snow was almost completely melted off Lisa Parker's solar array.

Parker and her husband, Steve, bought solar panels for their house in Soldotna back in 2020 through a group purchasing campaign.

They have 20 panels — 10 on each side of their roof. And Parker can see exactly how many kilowatt hours of power they’re producing from an app on her phone.

They’ve only just started producing this spring, as the snow slowly melts away. The panels can generate power with a light snow cover. But they can’t when the snow is heavy, like it is now.

“You try to find alternatives to natural gas, to generate power,” Parker said. “But when you get the snow loads like we had this past winter, it makes it difficult, unless you find somebody that wants to climb up on your roof and clean your panels and hopefully not damage them in the process.”

On the app, Parker pulled up a bar graph that shows power produced in 2022.

“We started generating power at the end of February. And when I look at it, in April of 2022, I generated over 600 kWh of power,” she said.

They also see that production on their bills from Homer Electric Association. When they’re producing enough to cover their costs, all they have to pay are administrative fees. And whatever they don’t use, HEA buys back.

“So during the summer months, it reduces your utility bill substantially,” Parker said.

Still, it’s all dependent on mother nature. Parker estimated it’ll be May of this year before their bills look majorly different.

Until then, she’ll be watching the app for any signs of sun.

On roads

As winter drags on, drivers on peninsula highways are dealing with snowy and icy road conditions that can have dangerous results — like a crash that happened this week during blizzard-like conditions in Turnagain Pass.

Clay Adam, the EMS chief at Cooper Landing Emergency Services, has seen the impact of the slow-melting snow, first-hand. He said so far this year, 75% of calls to his department have been about vehicle accidents, almost all of them weather related.

“This time of year, everything’s starting to melt, and there are areas along the Seward Highway where the water pools in the low spots that can really cause people to lose control,” he said. “They hit it, thinking it’s not that deep, and then they get pulled one way or another then they lose control.”

Turnagain Pass on April 25, 2023.
Riley Board
Turnagain Pass on April 25, 2023.

He said this often causes cars to flip. Most of the wrecks CLES has responded to lately have involved vehicles lying on their sides.

Adam said a big contributor to vehicle crashes this spring has been drivers letting their guard down this late in the season.

“You kind of get that angst, that anxiety toward the end of winter — you’re ready for summer to come and you kind of take it for granted, you’ve been driving these roads all winter,” he said.

He said especially in the mornings, drivers won’t know that snow melt from the day before has frozen into to black ice overnight. That wasn’t as much the case last winter. But the average temperature in Southcentral this month has hovered around freezing, as Anchorage experiences its coldest April in a decade.

Emergency departments across the peninsula this week received new extrication equipment, used to rescue passengers in vehicle accidents. Kenai Fire Chief Tony Prior said that equipment is especially helpful in a season like this one.

“Everybody is anxious for spring and for the roads to dry up and be back to normal, but this definitely helps, when you have a prolonged season,” he said.

Adam said there’s a possibility the late snow will overlap with the arrival of tourists, RVs and less-experienced winter drivers.

“Think about how many of them are pulling trailers, RVs, and they’re not used to driving in these types of conditions,” he said. “It could potentially create a significant hazard.”

Luckily, although the Cooper Landing department CLES struggled with volunteer numbers throughout the winter, seasonal EMS techs are returning for summer, and Adam said the station is fully prepared for the busy season.

On farms

Christina Land runs Grace Acres farm, in Kasilof. As of Thursday, there were still tall piles of snow in her yard.

“We’ve been up here 14 seasons, now,” she said. “This is one of the heaviest snows I’ve seen.”

She said the snow has set their farming season back by weeks. Last year, they started planting during the second week of May.

Christina Land of Grace Acres at the Soldotna Wednesday Market.
Sabine Poux
Christina Land of Grace Acres Farm at the Soldotna Wednesday Market in 2022.

“At the latest, we’ll probably be first week of June, planting,” she said.

That’s also going to set her farmers market plans back a bit. Saturday and Wednesday markets start in June in Soldotna, but Land says that’s too far to travel if they don’t have enough greens to sell.

But she said they’ve added product to their farmstand that they don’t have to wait on, this year — like sauerkraut and chaga, a type of mushroom. That gives them a bit of a buffer.

The heavy snow has also created a lot more work. They’re having to constantly move snow out of the way, and off roofs.

“The main thing this year was running out of room to put the snow. It got so high in the middle, in between the high tunnels,” she said. “Our high tunnels are 17 feet at their peak. And it got well over that, with the snow loads coming off of them.”

She said they had to be really careful to shovel the heavy snow off the tunnels so they wouldn’t collapse.

“We would all take turns and set clocks and alarms,” Land said.

She’s hoping that, at least, they’ll have a long warm season on the other side. Sometimes, she said, a late start on one end means a later end on the other, or vice versa.

“I’m hoping, I’m hoping,” she said. “But it’s Alaska, so — you never know.”

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
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