SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska




January 17, 2015
Saturday PM

Ketchikan, Alaska - When it gets a little wetter, or colder, or hotter than usual, Ketchikan residents immediately head to the historical records.

Was that 5 inch rainfall the other day a record breaker?

How about those temps in the mid 80s that one hot week in August?

We like to compare. But even more so, we like to feel like we have just made it through a significant weather event that we can now post about all over the social media!

Unfortunately, when you search the weather statistics from the National Weather Service you tend to find that in most cases, the significant weather was happening in Ketchikan a century ago. Today’s weather “events” generally don’t measure up to the temperatures and rainfall of Ketchikan in the 1910s.


24 inches of snow was measured at 1:00 pm Sunday, December 28, 2008, 12 miles north of Ketchikan...
SitNews File Photo and Measurements by MIKE HOUTS ©2008

Which always leads to a little concern over just how "accurate" those readings were back in the days when Ketchikan was little more than a couple of docks and a handful of houses.

After all, rain gauges and thermometers circa 1910 were a little less precise than they are today. And it leaves one to wonder just how precise those historical readings were. Was it really that hot? Was it really that wet? No one is around to answer how the locals measured those things in 1915.

But, as far as NWS is concerned they are the gospel of Ketchikan weather.

Yes, Ketchikan's most cherished weather superlative did occur in 1949 when more than 202 inches of rain was recorded and, one hopes, that number can be trusted.

But what about the all-time coldest temperature of Minus 8 degrees that was recorded on January 24, 1916?

The day before, January 23, it was minus 7 degrees. The day before that, minus 5. How do we know there wasn't a thermometer error? Or that a weather watcher didn’t decide it was too cold to go outside and just “guestimated” the chill.

The second greatest Ketchikan "cold snap" was a year and a week later in January of 1917, when Ketchikan had three straight days in the minus 3-5 range.

Since then the coldest recorded day was January 19, 2012, in which a reliable minus 2 was recorded.

Other than a couple of minus 1 days in 1964, that has been it for below zero temps in the First City, according to the National Weather Service. It makes one wonder if the mercury being used in 1916 and 1917 was past its expiration date!

The same goes for hottest days as well. NWS tags five days in Ketchikan history that topped 90 degrees. All happened between 1912 and 1915. Ketchikan's all time scorcher was 96 degrees on June 25, 1913. It has not been over 90 since July 27, 1915. So much for local global warming!

Once again, the highest reliably recorded temperature in Ketchikan is 89, which was hit twice during August of 1977. We'll get back to that interesting weather year in a minute.

Early rainfall amounts are also generally more significant in Ketchikan's early years. The wettest two day period in our history was the summer monsoon of August 4-5, 1920 when more than 15 inches of rainfall was recorded. In two days!

Again, those were so beyond the norm that one has to be a little suspicious of the results.

Ketchikan has had days when 6 to 8 inches of rain has fallen, but that’s only time when a couple were back to back. In fact, that August of 1920 had to be a particularly miserable one because, according to the National Weather Service, more than 33 inches of rain fell that month. Those numbers are more what happens in October.

Yet, interestingly enough, neither of those two days in August of 1920 were the wettest days on record. One day in 1977 was wetter, we'll get back to that in a bit.

Snowfall recording is also somewhat spotty, even by the National Weather Service, a lot of famous historical snows were recorded photographically and anecdotally but very few of them seem have been reflected in the NWS records.

For example, about five years ago, there was a snow storm in January that piled up nearly two feet of snow in a little over a day and pretty much shut the town down for three days. But it doesn’t seem to be part of the historical record. In general, the NWS records show very little snowfall in the permanent records, even back in the 1910s and 1920s. The one time where seems to have been a significant amount of snowfall in the First City was between 1962 and 1970 when many of the daily records were set.

But, officially, the snowiest day in Ketchikan history was January 14, 1917, when two feet of snow was recorded.

So, for most of our historical weather "superlatives" we are left with the dusty pages of ancient history.

With one exception. It seems that 1977 was a spectacular year for "weather" in the first city.

In 1977, we our wettest day ever, nearly 9 inches. We also had a two week stretch of real summer in August, where the day time temps were well above 80 and even peaked out at 89, twice, our hottest temperature since World War I.

In 1977, Ketchikan residents were not as interested in the weather as they are today. The Ketchikan Daily News didn’t even report the daily weather with any regularity. Some days, there was a weather report but most days there was not. Rarely would the newspaper report, as is does now, the previous day’s temperature and precipitation.

The summer of 1977 was clearly somewhat drier and warmer than normal, though, as there were news stories noting concern over forest fire conditions in Southeast Alaska from June on. The dryness was a statewide issue. In early August, more 1.5 million acres of land in northern Alaska had been consumed by fire. Locally, there was a small fire burning in the woods not far from Craig.

In Ketchikan, residents were more interested in reading about the closure of the Point Higgins Coast Guard radio station which had gone from being the largest station in Alaska in the 1940s and 1950s, to having “outlived its usefulness” by 1977. Local attention was also focused on Ketchikan Little League All-star team which had won its first state title and was proving to be competitive, beating teams from Idaho and Nevada, at the regional championships in California.

On Aug. 4, a high pressure system moved into the area and the temperature zoomed from the mid 70s to 86. It stayed at 86 for for the next three days. There was a brief story in the newspaper noting that while hot, it was not a record temp for August and well below the all time record of 96 in June of 1913.

After temps dropped briefly into the upper 70s for a couple of days, they went back up to 82 on the 10th , beginning a streak of 12 straight days of 80 plus temperatures. Included in that streak were highs of 89 on Aug. 14 and Aug. 18, the highest recorded First City temperatures since 1915.

Other than a couple of photographs of locals enjoying the sun at Rotary Beach, there were no stories in the Daily News about “the weather.”

Finally, on Aug. 19, the 11th day in a row with temperatures over 80 degrees, the Daily News took full notice with three weather stories on the front page, under the banner “Weather and Water, The Rain Forest dries up.”

Besides concern over the low creek levels hurting the salmon runs, local timber operations were put on day-time harvest limits, known as “hoot owl.”

The residents of Ketchikan were also “suffering” as well. A third front page story noted that all of Ketchikan’s stores were officially out of electric fans, as residents scrambled to find some relief.

On the 20th, another banner headline noted that “Fishermen, canneries and biologists” were afraid that unabated heat could wipe an entire future salmon run.

jpg Ward Lake Nature Trail underwater after 9.46 inches of rain

Ward Lake Nature Trail underwater after 9.46 inches of rainfall measured for September 27th and 28th, 2014
SitNews File Photograph by Jeff Lund ©2014

Fortunately, help was on its way as the high pressure system finally weakend and the rest of August was wetter than normal. So was September. But it was only a prelude for the second weather “event” to strike in 1977. October 11 would become the wettest day in Ketchikan’s soggy history.

The weather in early October was nothing out of the ordinary. The stories in the Daily News revolved around the local elections and a bond vote for hospital improvements. It even rained on election day, October 4. In passing, the Daily News wondered if the rain had depressed election turnout.

But a week later, the heavens truly opened up on the First City. A storm with consistent 50 mile per hour winds arrived on October 11 and then it began to rain. It rained in a way that was torrential, even by Ketchikan standards. Storm drains quickly filled with debris and Tongass Avenue was flooded from Newtown all the way out to Jefferson Street.

Several businesses had to close because flood waters got inside. The Daily News reported that Ferry’s Foods store, Rozwick’s Music and Yukon Office Supply were particularly hard hit with water in the aisles.

Traffic had to slow to a crawl on Tongass Avenue and at least six boats sank in Thomas Basin and Bar Harbor.

The Daily News reported the Oct. 11 deluge as 5.75 inches with an unknown additional amount on Oct. 12. Later the NWS would officially decree that 8.71 inches of rain hit Ketchikan on Oct 11 with another 4 inches falling on Oct. 12.

It was indeed a storm for the ages.

And those who still remember that storm would probably agree that those NWS numbers were probably accurate.

On the Web:

Columns by Dave Kiffer

Historical Feature Stories by Dave Kiffer


Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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Dave Kiffer ©2015


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Ketchikan, Alaska

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