SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska
Column - Commentary

"Weather or not, we know it's coming"  


January 01, 2023

Ketchikan, Alaska -
Once upon a time, the weather just happened.


You woke up in the morning and it was raining.

Or snowing.

Or "oh my God, Auntie Em just got carried off by a twister!"

Sure, there were some omens out there. Maybe you saw the "red sky at morning." Or you noticed the clouds had a greenish hue. Perhaps, some larger waves began rolling in or the wind direction changed suddenly.

Maybe someone said that they smelled "snow in the air." Or someone else's knee started acting up.

But, in general, there was very little warning. And that was not a good thing.

I grew up with tales about serious weather events striking with little warning, like the Galveston hurricane of 1900 or the Florida hurricane of 1935 where thousands of people died when the storms rolled in with little, or no, warning.

Those were not good times.

I can remember a time, when I was growing up, where weather "prediction" was not a thing like it is today. There were better methods in the 1960s than in the 1900s or the 1930s, but it wasn't anything near like it is today. You might get a couple of days notice that "something" meteological was in the offing, but that was about it.

I went over an old newspaper - from 1968 - a while back because I was curious if there was much warning of the infamous 1968 Thanksgiving Storm that wallopped Ketchikan with sustained winds over 125 mph (when the wind gauge blew down).  Two days before hand, they were calling for winds of 25 with gusts to 30 on Turkey Day. Kinda missed that one.

Now it is a little different. Weather satellites, untold battalions of meteorologists (professional and otherwise) and the world wide web mean that we track weather "events" for weeks.

Today, a tropical depression forms a few miles off the coast of Africa and we are already being told it will hit Folly Beach, South Carolina as a Category Four Storm in exactly 11 days, three hours and 26 minutes.

Now, a butterly flaps its wings in the South Pacific and within 20 minutes some weather forecaster somewhere is already predicting a storm with 40-foot seas in Tongass Narrows within a fortnight.

This is also not necessarily a good thing.

Because predicting remains an inexact science and the odds of that storm hitting Folly Beach at that exact time is probably only a little bit higher than anyone I know winning a big fat lottery check and retiring to Folly Beach (and building a lovely beach house near the Edwin S. Taylor Fishing Pier).

Same with Tongass Narrows, which has never had 40 foot seas and would erase Ketchikan if it did.

But because no meteorogist wants to get "caught unawares" they begin predicting stuff the minute they have any information and begin producing maps will sorts of outcomes on them. And these are the same folks that got offended when a US president produced a crudely colored hand drawn weather map a few years ago to make a political point.

But I digress.

Don't get me wrong, knowing what is coming IS important. But what exactly do we do with that information?

A wiser, and funnier, person than me, once noted that "everyone complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it."

And that is the same today as it was when Charles Dudley Warner wrote it in 1889.

Yet, giving a good forecast can lead to us taking steps to protect us, if we take action.

Recently, a large number of people in Florida died in Hurricane Ian because they chose remain in the beachfront "cottages" despite predictions of 15-foot storm surges. Their doublewides did not survive the surge and neither did they.

It reminded me a documentary I once saw about Hurricane Camille in Alabama in which journalists interviewed a bunch of party goers in a beachfront hotel before the storm hit and then when they went back only the foundation was left and the all the party goers had died. You can't fix stupid.

But I digress again.

All this leads me to thinking about how we all reacted to the Great Ketchikan Freeze Up and Snowpocalypse of Christmas 2022.

More than two weeks before the freeze, I started getting messages from folks who were looking at the on-line forecasts and were worried that the predictions were showing that Our Fair Salmon City was about to get jiggy with temperatures well below zero.

Now anything well below zero in Ketchikan is indeed an event. The alltiime record was Minus 7, back in the 1916, and I have personally shivered through Minus 5 in these here parts. But going below zero in Ketchikan is something that happens even more rarely than a blue moon or a politician telling the truth or whatever rare event you want to think about.

So my attention was piqued. Natch, anything that was still two weeks out was a little suspect.

The only forecast that is accurate two weeks out is that Ketchikan is looking at a 100 percent chance of rain. Ketchikan is always looking at a 100 percent "CHANCE" of rain, any day of the year. Any year.

Still, temps down to Minus 5 and below were going to be epic. This were going to freeze. Things that would then burst. The streets would freeze and traction would be not likely. Cars were going to go in the ditch and hit power poles. Nothing is more fun than losing power when power supplies your heat.

It was gonna be Chillmaggedon.

Unless there was a glitch in the process.

And in this case there was.

The primary "oopser" was the aggregate site that fed a whole of smart phones. It was predicting the deep freeze based on the forecast for Juneau and it assumed that all the rest of SE was just like Juneau. Which is an assumption that Juneau makes as well most of the time!

Anyway, if you looked at the National Weather Service predictions for Ketchikan before the ice storm arrived, you saw a rapidly vacillating dart board. Yes, the cold was coming. But it might be 2 degrees. Or if might be 10 degrees, or it  might be 7 degrees or it might  be 20 degrees.

Don't get me wrong, these are all low temperatures and anything under freezing makes some of the roads here pretty unpassablel as the water (that 100 percent chance of rain) freezes, unfreezes and freezes, unfreezes and freezes, unfreezes and freezes again. And again.

Eventually you end up with 300 or 400 layers of ice on everything. Not good.

And so, my fellow citizens of  Ketchikan had two weeks to stew about that.

That's the problem. We collect more rocksalt and maybe plan alternate ways to get to work. But we weren't' going to be able to "do anything" about the upcoming weather, except imagine just how bad it would be.

As it was, it wasn't that bad.

The temp did get down to 3 above one day, which was pretty chill for Ktown. And more than a few pipes froze and some burst. And it was pretty slippery on the main arteries like Jefferson and Carlanna.

But it wasn't much of a great freeze up. And the snowpocalypse turned out to be around five or six inches, which was quickly washed off by the 100 Percent Chance of Rain leaving Ketchikan with an unwhite Christmas for the 59th time in my lifetime.

Basically because of all those computer models and those satellites and - especially - those amateur meteorologists, we had two weeks of needless worry (as opposed to needful worry) preceeding the weather "event."

And that is how it is in the modern world. The only thing worse than the Great Christmas Freeze Out of 2022 was the brain freeezing that happened for the two weeks before it.

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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.

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