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Month-long cold spell depletes salt supply in Wrangell, city steps in with sand

Streets around Wrangell are looking different than in a typical early winter, when they’d be wet with rain, maybe a dusting of snow.

Instead, many streets – especially hills – are covered with slick sheets of ice. Outside KSTK, kids slide from the top of the hill to the bottom on their knees, unable to walk down.

“This is definitely outside normal for this time of year,” says Pete Boyd, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Juneau. And he says that lows in the Wrangell area have been around 20 degrees colder than a typical year. That’s affecting precipitation.

“Normally,” Boyd continues, “We’d be seeing a lot more rain-snow mix or a transition over to rain, especially for the southern panhandle. And with the cold temperatures, it’s just not melting or transitioning over to rain. So this is also outside the normal.”

Wrangell didn’t have any rain the whole month of December – it was too cold. It’s putting a strain on cold-weather resources in town. Wrangell’s two hardware stores and the local auto parts store told KSTK they were out of salt on Wednesday (January 5), with only a few bags of ice melt between them.

On Thursday, Wrangell’s Public Works department started providing sand for residents to use to try and de-slick driveways and sidewalks. Borough code states residents are responsible for clearing the sidewalks in front of their properties.

Sand is available for pickup in the parking lot off of Zimovia Highway at about 1.5-mile between the Community Garden and cemetery. But supply is limited – two five-gallon buckets per household.

“We do not have an endless supply,” says Wrangell’s Public Works Director Tom Wetor, “But we’re trying to spare what we can, just understanding that a lot of people are in a tough situation, and it is pretty bad all over town, and we want to do everything that we can to try and help people out with that.”

Wetor says that on the city side, Wrangell’s four-person public works crew has been plowing and spreading sand and salt as quickly as they can throughout the cold spell.

“We have put in more overtime in the month of December than we probably did in three months last winter,” he says.

It’s not a problem unique to Wrangell this year – the whole region is frozen solid. In Petersburg, KFSK reported heavy snowfall delayed a return to school. And earlier this week in Juneau, KTOO reported the city has already blown through its snow removal budget for the year.

Depending on the amount of snow, the Wrangell crew gets called out as early as 2 a.m. to start clearing roads around town. Starting near the hospital and around the schools, they work outward to clear the streets in town, then the side roads out Zimovia Highway.

“We have been spreading salt in all of the intersections throughout the week, we have sanded the roads every single day and some locations, multiple times in a day,” Wetor says. “What we’re experiencing is that we’ll go down and sand a road and 12 hours later, it looks like we haven’t been down the road, because a lot of it just ends up blowing off with the winds we’ve been having this week.”

Typically, public works crews use magnesium chloride to pre-treat roads before a freeze. But the freeze hasn’t let up.

“[Magnesium chloride] is far less effective when temperatures are this cold and when there’s this level of ice buildup,” Wetor says. “There’s the possibility that you dump that on, and you just kind of melt the top layer of this really thick sheet of ice and you wash some of your sand away, and you don’t really actually gain anything. And with temperatures being as cold as they are, salt and some of these other chemicals lose their effectiveness.”

Wetor says as temperatures have stayed in the teens, the crew has been salting and then sanding shortly thereafter, trying to rough up the surface of the ice, but it’s not a solution that they can apply to every road and parking lot – there’s not enough salt.

“It’s an unusually high amount [of salt] that we’re using right now just because it’s been an unusually high amount of snow and ice this winter,” he adds.

With that said, Wetor says he knows this isn’t totally out of left field for Wrangell – it looks like winters of long ago. Facing colder, icier conditions takes preparation on everyone’s part, he says. Public Works is already working to prepare for the storm predicted to come this weekend, spreading more salt, sand, and clearing storm drains around town.

“At the end of the day, winter is winter, no one can control the weather, and we do everything that we can,” Wetor says. “People still need to be aware of conditions and drive with caution and drive to the road conditions and different things like that. But that being said, you know, this is more than normal. I don’t think that it caught us off guard. But we have been very busy trying to keep up with it.”

Boyd, with the National Weather Service, says the unseasonable cold is caused by what he calls an “amplified wave” weather pattern, kind of like a wave in the ocean. It’s bringing extremes on both ends of the spectrum to the state of Alaska.

“You’ve heard what’s been going on in Fairbanks and Kodiak, they’ve been getting nailed with warm temperatures and lots of precipitation, that’s just aiming straight for there, then that wave crashes over and drops down towards the southern panhandle, and that’s where we’re just getting the drier, cold Arctic air that’s coming in from the Yukon,” Boyd explains. “There’s this high pressure there, which typically is known for cold Arctic temperatures. We’re seeing temperatures up in Yukon of -50 degrees Fahrenheit. So that’s just streaming down, and this pattern just is not shifting. So we just get that continuous cold air over the region.”

The end – of this wave, at least – is in sight.

“We are going to get out of the deep freeze but it’s going to be a bit of a mess as it transitions over,” Boyd says. That’s because the cold weather should start to break up a bit in the coming weekend. But before that, Wrangell could get up to a foot of snow, then rain on top, he explains.

As the weather warms, Boyd suggests trying to remove snow from roofs and from around foundations to minimize roof avalanches and possible crawl space flooding, as well as clearing storm drains and staying away from streams.

“We’re definitely not even near any kind of record cold spell that we’ve seen – the record at the Wrangell airport,” Boyd notes. “It’s gotten close. But we’re still a number of degrees off from the records there. But it may become the new norm that’s something we’re always still trying to look at and get used to.”

Boyd says federal climatologists are predicting a colder-than-average winter for Wrangell this year, so the community could be in for another long freeze before spring. And as the climate changes in the longer term, he says, cold spells like the one that’s frozen Wrangell at the moment could become more common.