ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The worst winter anyone can remember in Alaska has piled snow so high people can't see out the windows, kept a tanker in ice-choked waters from delivering fuel on time and turned snow-packed roofs into sled runs.
While most of the nation has gone without much seasonal snow, the state already known for winter is buried in weather that has dumped more than twice as much snow as usual on its largest city, brought out the National Guard and put a run on snow shovels.
As a Russian tanker crawled toward the iced-in coastal community of Nome to bring in much-needed fuel, weather-weary Alaskans awoke Thursday to more of the white stuff — more than a foot was expected to fall in Anchorage — and said enough was enough.
"The scary part is, we still have three more months to go," said Kathryn Hawkins, a veterinarian who lives in the coastal community of Valdez, about 100 miles southeast of Anchorage. "I look out and go, 'Oh my gosh, where can it all go?'"
The city has seen more than 26 feet of snowfall since November. Snow is piled 8 feet high outside Hawkins' home and she can't see out the front or back of her house. Her 12-year-old son has been sliding off the roof into the yard.
In the nearby fishing community of Cordova, the Alaska National Guard is out helping clear snow from streets and roofs. The city already been buried under 172 inches of snow since November; snow began falling again after midnight Wednesday.
"You actually get to a point where it almost becomes it's expected, that it's going to be snowing," said Teresa Benson, a Cordova resident and district manager for the National Forest Service.
The city is struggling with a place to put the snow that has already fallen before dealing with more. Front-end loaders are taking scoop after scoop of snow from large dump piles to a snow-melting machine.
"That's our big issue, getting our snow dumps cleared for the next barrage of snow," Cordova spokesman Allen Marquette said.
More than 186 inches of snow has fallen in Cordova this season, including 59 inches for the first 10 days of January alone, according to the National Weather Service. The seasonal record of 221.5 inches was set in 1955-56.
Anchorage had 81.6 inches fall as of Wednesday — more than twice the average snowfall of 30.1 inches for the same time period. The weather service counts July 1 through the end of June as a snow season.
This year's total already broke the record 77.3 inches that fell during the same time period in the 1993-94 season, and another 3 inches has fallen since midnight Wednesday. If it keeps up, Anchorage is on track to have the snowiest winter ever, surpassing the previous record of 132.8 inches in 1954-55.
The massive snowfall is the result of two atmospheric patterns "that are conspiring to send an unending series of storms into Alaska," said Jeff Masters, a meteorologist who runs Weather Underground, a meteorology service that tracks strange and extreme weather.
For the second winter in a row, the Pacific weather phenomenon known as La Nina is affecting the weather. But instead of plentiful snow in the Lower 48, Alaska is getting slammed because of a second weather pattern. That's called the Arctic Oscillation and it has been strong this year, changing air patterns to the south and keeping the coldest winter air locked up in the Arctic.
"Alaska is definitely getting the big dump," said Bill Patzert, a climate expert at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Many of the lower 48 states have seen an unusually mild start to the winter. A storm dumped several inches of snow on northwestern Wisconsin and western Iowa before moving eastward and to start blanketing Milwaukee, St. Louis and Chicago, which was expected to get up to 8 inches by Friday morning.
In the ice-choked frozen waters of the Bering Sea, a Russian tanker loaded with 1.3 million gallons of fuel is progressing steadily toward Nome, following the path being painstakingly plowed by a Coast Guard icebreaker. Thick ice, wind and unfavorable ocean currents had initially slowed the vessel's progress, but as of 2 p.m. Thursday the tanker and the icebreaker were 46 miles from Nome and likely to arrive Friday, said Coast Guard spokesman David Mosley.
The city missed its final pre-winter delivery of fuel by barge when a big storm swept the region last fall. Without the delivery, Nome could run short of fuel before another barge arrives in late spring. That's raised the specter of climbing gas prices — up to $9 a gallon if fuel has to be flown in. Gasoline was selling for $5.43 on Thursday.
The weather has put a strain on the state, which estimates the cost of paying for guard members in Cordova, heavy equipment, fuel and other costs at $775,000, said emergency management spokesman Jeremy Zidek.
In Anchorage, schools were open Thursday, but some school bus routes were canceled because of whiteout driving conditions.
"I think people were girding their loins for a long winter," said Anchorage police Lt. Dave Parker. He hasn't seen an upsurge of crime, but "by the end of March, there might be a few frustrated people."
In Cordova, shovel-makers were making emergency shipments to help out. There are plenty of standard shovels around town, but they're lacking a version with a scoop that can push a cubic foot of snow or better at a time.
The new shovels cost about $50 each, and the city is paying for them with emergency funds.
The Yukon ergo sleigh shovels, with a 26-inch scoop, have a huge advantage over regular shovels. "Trying to lift snow all day with those is pretty backbreaking," city spokesman Tim Joyce said.
"We have the National Guard right now using the standard shovel, and they're getting pretty trashed everyday — not the shovels but the Guardsmen themselves," he said.
The warmer temperatures — about 35 degrees midday Wednesday — brought another hazard to the Prince William Sound community of 2,200 people: avalanche danger.
There's one road leading out, and it was closed though it could be opened for emergency vehicles.
The city also is warning people not to stand under the eaves of their houses to clear snow off the roof: "There's a real high potential that if it does slide, they'd be buried," Joyce said.
The snow has damaged four commercial buildings and two homes and evacuated a 24-unit apartment complex in Cordova.
The current storm system is expected to be gone by Friday, but it was also expected to get much colder. "So all this wet stuff will turn very, very hard and that's going to make it more difficult to shovel," Marquette said.
Meteorologists say high temperatures this weekend should top out from zero to 5 degrees, with lows of about 10 below.
If there's one fan of the snow in Valdez, it's 12-year-old Trevor, Kathryn Hawkins' son. School is out and the snow is piled so high on the roof that he's been sliding off of it into the yard.
"When it first started snowing, he said, 'More, more, more snow,' and I'm like, 'Will you stop it? We've had enough.'" Hawkins said.
"And that was before all this came. He said, 'I want to slide off the roof again,'" she said.
"And now he can, to his heart's content."