Wet Christmas expected for Southeast Alaska as cold snap gives way to snow and rain

A skater near Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau Alaska on Dec. 19, 2022. (Photo by Paige Sparks/KTOO)

It’s been a cold start to the week in Southeast Alaska. Low temperatures in the teens and single digits broke daily records across the panhandle, from Haines to Sitka to Ketchikan, Metlakatla and Prince of Wales Island.

But the cold is expected to let up soon, says Brian Bezenek with the National Weather Service in Juneau.

“The high pressure on the Yukon, which has been bringing in all the cold air, is sort of retreating right now, and we have a weather front that will be sweeping in out of the southwest out of the Pacific, and that will be moving in Wednesday night Thursday, into Friday across the panhandle,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday morning.

That front is expected to bring some heavy snow to the southern panhandle. Six to eight inches are expected in Ketchikan starting Thursday afternoon. The central and northern panhandle are expected to see snow Friday into Saturday.

But if you’re dreaming of a white Christmas, you might be out of luck. Bezenek says a wet Christmas is more likely as snow turns to rain in the southern panhandle on Saturday.

“We’ve got temperatures warming up probably into the upper 30s to low 40s by the time you get to Christmas Day, so we might try and melt off all your new beautiful snow before then, but we’ll probably have precipitation around during Christmas Day,” he said.

He says forecasters are expecting snow to turn to rain a little later over the central panhandle. Northern panhandle communities might see continued snowfall even with rising temperatures.

Cold temperatures this week broke daily records, but Bezenek says they’re “nowhere close” to breaking all-time record lows. Temperatures plunged to 5 degrees in Ketchikan on Monday, but the community’s all-time low of minus-7 degrees was set back in January of 1916, according to the Weather Service.

Icy roads and freezing pipes have challenged some communities. The city of Saxman, south of downtown Ketchikan, shut down portions of its water system on Monday as crews chased down leaks. Metlakatla’s tribal government asked residents to conserve power as the cold pushed the community’s power grid to its limits.

Snowy weather always has the potential to disrupt flights, but Juneau International Airport Manager Patty Wahto says her crews are ready.

“We’re ramped up for the winter season as far as what we do on the runway and what the airlines do for coming in and out, and just prepared in case there are some delayed flights or some cancellations. But at this point, we’re just in operational mode for winter,” she said.

She says travelers arriving by car should leave extra time to find a place to park — she says the airport’s lots are looking rather full.

It’s a similar story in Ketchikan. Airport manager Alex Peura says his crews are ready for the snow. The parking lots closest to the airport on Gravina Island are expected to fill up with holiday travelers. But he says there should be plenty of parking at the airport’s recently-expanded Revilla Island lot.

“We have never seen that full to capacity yet. So we’re anticipating over Christmas, here this week, it’s filling up, but there’s still lots of available parking on the town side,” he said.

Expected snowy and cold conditions in Seattle caused some airlines to preemptively cancel flights on Tuesday, officials at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport said in an online update. The flight tracking site FlightAware showed hundreds of cancellations and delays at SeaTac on Tuesday, which could complicate Christmas travel from Southeast Alaska to the Lower 48.

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