Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Cold affront — Breakup of ‘omega block’ will bring end to frigid temperatures

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Forget communism, this is the real cold war.

The central Kenai Peninsula has been under siege by frigid conditions for two weeks now, with temperatures plunging below minus 30 in Soldotna and Kenai at night, and even lower than that in the cold sink that is Sterling.

The culprit? Russia.

Not that the country has any control over the situation, but if having a scapegoat makes frozen pipes or dead cars any easier to deal with, Alaska’s neighbor to the east is as good a target for frustration as any.

A weather pattern called an omega block (or bloc, perhaps?) is holding court over Russia. In an omega block, low-pressure systems sandwich in high pressure and don’t allow anything to move east or west, said John Stepetin, a specialist with the National Weather Service’s Anchorage forecast office.

These conditions could form any time of year, but in the winter it’s leaving Alaska shivering from cold air coming down from the north.

“When we get that omega block it could last two or three weeks sometimes,” Stepetin said. “We could have it in the summertime and it could be nice and warm and dry. It’s just you get two low pressures blocking high pressure that nothing’s moving.”

Lack of air movement is making the peninsula even chillier than other parts of the state, with Anchorage registering about 10 to 15 degrees warmer than the Kenai-Soldotna area lately. That’s because Anchorage is getting a breeze, and the central peninsula is not.

“The difference between you and us is that we get a little wind that mixes up the temperatures and warms it up a little, whereas you’re not getting any kind of breeze. There are warm temperatures aloft, but it’s not mixing things up at all,” Stepetin said.

Without wind to bring warmer air down to the ground, there’s nothing to do but shiver until the weather pattern breaks, which should be soon.

“That block is weakening, so we’ll start seeing low pressure moving in and start warming things up Wednesday and Thursday,” Stepetin said.

That forecast didn’t do much to keep Chelsie White warm on her chilly walk along the Sterling Highway in Soldotna on Monday from her job at Subway to Sal’s Diner in minus 23 degrees. White was headed to Sal’s to get a ride from her dad.

She and her boyfriend, Ben Winn, usually walk back and forth from their home near Fred Meyer to their jobs — hers at Subway and his at McDonald’s. But in the recent cold snap, and with White nine months pregnant, she’s been getting rides more often.

“I haven’t been walking much since it’s been this cold,” she said. “I usually get rides from my parents. They get mad when I walk.”

White had a car, but it met an untimely accidental demise.

“My dad kind of hit it with a boat and trailer, so, yeah, it don’t work no more,” she said.

Overall, White said she likes winter. She enjoys snowboarding, sledding and hunting, but she was six months pregnant when snow first hit this year, so she hasn’t been able to enjoy her normal snowy pursuits. Mostly, she’s just walked in the stuff.

“The first part of winter when it was mostly wet snow instead of dry and cold like this, that was a nightmare to walk in,” White said. “It’s not bad when the sidewalks are plowed, but you get that fresh bit of snow and you’re walking through it. That sucked.”

The banged-up car isn’t salvageable, and other means of transportation aren’t affordable, she said. It costs about $10 for a one-way cab ride from their home to work, and Central Area Rural Transit System rides are $50 for a punch card.
“It’s expensive, and when you’ve got diapers and formula you’ve got to buy, it’s too expensive. That $50 is two packs of diapers, and they go through them so fast,” she said.

“If they had a bus down here, I think it would make it easier on so many people. With cabs you can spend $200 a month on cab bills, and that can be just going back and forth to work.”

So that leaves walking, which usually isn’t too bad, White said.

“My boyfriend doesn’t mind it, but he’s kind of a polar bear. He’s used to it. He’s been up here his whole life. A good pair of gloves and a jacket and he’s fine. I draw the line at him opening the window at night, though,” she said.

If it weren’t so cold, White wouldn’t mind the walk either.

“I need to exercise a little bit. I feel too much like Moby Dick on sticks right now,” she said. “I’m so ready to not be pregnant. I’m ready to put my own socks on in the morning.”

White and Winn’s son, Logan William Winn, is due Jan. 15. As of Monday, White is on maternity leave from her job, so she’ll be able to wait out the rest of the cold snap in the warmth of home.

If it helps pass the time between now and when the thermometer does finally rise, Stepetin suggests looking at the bigger weather picture.

“You look at the Yukon Flats and they’re anywhere from 55 below to 65 below, so it might make you feel a little bit warmer,” he said.

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