Extremely Warm Fall Leaves Alaska Ice Thinner Than Usual

By: Tim Mowry
Published: December 14, 2013

Jessica Spengler/

A beached iceberg photographed in 2005 on a lake in Tracy Arm, Alaska.

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Thanks to one of the warmest Octobers in 100 years in Fairbanks, ice on local lakes and rivers is thinner than normal at this time of year.

The National Weather Service typically takes its first ice measurements during the first week of November but the ice was still too thin to do that this year. Instead, the weather service took its first ice measurements on local water bodies last week and found that ice on rivers and lakes around Fairbanks is thinner than normal.

Ice thicknesses ranged from 8 to 14 inches, with the thickest ice on lakes and ponds. The thickest ice found by weather service measurers was 14 inches at Quartz Lake and 48 Mile Pond on Chena Hot Springs Road. The thinnest ice was 8 inches on the Chena River at Pike's Landing and 9 inches on the Chena River at Nordale Road.

"As a result of one of the warmest autumns on record in northern Alaska, ice was generally 1 to 5 inches thinner than normal," the weather service said in a statement issued Wednesday. "Freeze-up was delayed by several weeks at some locations in October due to prolonged periods of above freezing temperatures."

The thinner ice has prevented the Fairbanks North Star Borough parks and recreation department and the northern region of Alaska State Parks from putting their ice fishing houses out on local lakes to rent. Usually ice houses are in place by Thanksgiving weekend.

Ricky Borland, manager at Chena Lake Recreation Area in North Pole, said the borough likes to see at least 12 inches of ice on the lake before putting ice houses out.

"We hope to get them out by the weekend," he said of the four ice houses the borough rents on Chena Lake. "We had them out way earlier last year."

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Alaska State Parks has been too busy clearing trees from the trails in the Chena River State Recreation Area to worry about ice houses, but a check of the ice last week at Quartz Lake showed one spot where the ice was only 4 inches thick, superintendent Brooks Ludwig said. The weather service measured the ice at Quartz Lake at 14 inches.

"It's really dicey this year," Ludwig said. "We're not going to push it."

There are a few private ice houses already on Birch Lake, but nobody has been driving on Birch or Quartz lakes, he said. The same is true for Chena Lake, Borland said.

Moose hunters on snow machines didn't run into any problems with thin ice during an antler-less moose hunt on Minto Flats that closed Wednesday night, Fairbanks assistant area biologist Tony Hollis said.

"Several people I talked to said they didn't have any trouble with ice anywhere," he said. "I talked to a guy running down the Chatanika, and he said it was good."

In addition to the warm October, the ice may be thinner this year because it snowed almost immediately after lakes and rivers froze up, providing a layer of insulation on top of the ice that inhibits ice growth.

"There was barely a crust of ice on the lake when we started getting snow, and I think that slows it down," Borland said.

Hydrologist Ed Plumb with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks agreed.

"We get especially thick ice in the fall when we don't have much snow and it's cold," he said.

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