Icemageddon 2021

Sept. 5, 2023
It was all hands on deck to battle a series of storms in Alaska

By Daniel Schacher, Contributing Author

We’re no strangers to winter maintenance at the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities’ northern region.

Headquartered in Fairbanks, the region covers an area of 377,000 square miles and climates that range from maritime to arctic. Massive snowfall events, months of darkness, and drifts higher than buildings are business as usual for our winter maintenance crews. But nothing we’ve experienced was quite like the storm known as Icemageddon that was delivered to Interior Alaska in 2021.

Our 2021-22 winter got off to an uneventful beginning in the interior. Wet snow fell in October, transitioning to dry and fluffy powder as winter progressed and temperatures steadily declined.

From November to March, temperatures remain below freezing, ensuring a steady accumulation of snow. That winter, we did what we do best: treated and plowed our roads and airports, storm after storm, orderly and efficiently.  

On Tuesday, Dec. 21, we received a forecast from the National Weather Service that the Fairbanks region would receive 4 inches of snow, with localized accumulations of 1 foot close to the Alaska Range south of the city.

No problem! Despite being short-staffed for the holidays, we could plow that amount of snow and still give the workers on hand time off for Christmas.

But then the National Weather Service upended our plans on Thursday with an updated forecast: freezing rain across the region, transitioning to heavy, wet snow accompanied by 55 mph winds. This was a problem after all.

Our team, along with our National Weather Service partners, agreed to meet twice daily to make plans and prepare to respond.

On Christmas Eve, our forecasters braced us for how much liquid precipitation we were about to receive. Liquid precipitation is not something Interior Alaska typically experiences in the winter. Although it has become more common in recent years, we expect everything to freeze at the beginning of winter and stay frozen until the sun comes back around in the spring.

This pending storm, if realized, would affect every aspect of our infrastructure, from highways and airports to power lines. Through a public information campaign, we urged people to “Pay attention,” “Take this event seriously,” and “Stay home.”

It was all hands on deck. We called our operators with approved leave and requested they come to work. Some crew members who had traveled out-of-state returned to support our operations. Each person was essential.

Heavy snow fell on Christmas Day. Fortunately, the National Weather Service gave us an accurate forecast for when the snow would transition to rain. Armed with this information, we made an extremely difficult and rare decision to cease plowing operations before the rain began.

With pavement temperatures around negative 10 degrees Fahrenheit, any liquid that hit the ground would instantly turn to ice. We hoped that leaving three to four inches of snow on our roads would allow some of the rain to be soaked up and make it easier to remove from the pavement.

As it rained, ice formed on power lines, causing numerous widespread outages. Without back-up generators to supply power, many of our maintenance stations went dark, affecting our ability to respond to the storm. Utility companies needed reliable highway travel to respond to the widespread outages, so our operators’ efforts became even more urgent.

Sunday, Dec. 26 dawned with widespread hazardous conditions across Interior Alaska. We were iced in. Almost all our main highways were impassable and had to be closed intermittently. Our public messaging shifted from sharing National Weather Service information to emergency response communications.

Our communications team tagged every social media message with #icemageddon2021 so the critical information would be easily identified and searchable by the public and the press. The hashtag caught on as members of the public began used it on their own social media posts.

Responding to the Challenge 

Every available person in the area worked that day. Crews were moved in from other areas of the state that were less impacted by the storm. Off-shift operators from other maintenance districts were brought in to help. Our communications team, iced in and working from home, sometimes without power, provided public updates twice daily during the initial response.

We realized that we needed to hire contractor resources with emergency funding to supplement our own crews. However, snow removal contractors already had other contracts in place and were as busy. Every snow removal contractor we contacted gave us a firm “No.”

Next, we reached out to local heavy civil earthwork contractors that had winterized and shut down most of their equipment for the season. All three of our main local contractors responded to our requests for assistance but couldn’t help right away as it took several days to warm up the cold-soaked, seasonally retired equipment we needed. Those three contactors came on board as quickly as they could, and for optimal productivity, we put them to work scraping ice on the roads closest to their respective shops.

Our communications office continued with regular updates. We provided information about the conditions on major roads and where we were working each day. Reporters began using the hashtag to search for storm updates and posted our information directly to their news sites.

After the storm had subsided by that Monday, we received a summary report that stated: Dec. 26, 2021 was the wettest December day ever recorded in Interior Alaska. To date, December 2021 was the wettest December ever recorded as well. When the winter was done, it was the second wettest winter (November- April) month ever recorded.

We Aren’t Done Yet?

Later that Monday, we learned another storm was headed our way. It was expected hit the next morning and last through Wednesday evening, bringing at least another foot of snow, a significant chance of more freezing rain, and wind gusts to 35 mph, peaking Wednesday morning.

Our communications team wasted no time messaging the public through all available channels about the additional impacts of the second winter storm.

We also came to terms with the fact that this ice was going to be nearly impossible to remove with the tools at our disposal. When the rain hit that cold pavement on Christmas Day, it bonded like cement. We attempted to temper the public’s expectations.

We added information to our messaging that some of the courtesies we can usually provide the public (like cleaning around mailboxes and driveway approaches) were not going to be in our future any time soon. Our response was fully focused on safety.

The second winter storm dumped more than a foot of snow on top of an already record-setting event. Then, almost immediately after the snow stopped, the temperatures dropped. For the next several days, we were back down to the negative 35 degrees Farenheit range with a few dips down to negative 40 degrees.

We don’t run equipment at temperatures that low because hydraulics don’t work and metal becomes brittle and breaks. This forced us to find areas of ground with higher temperatures that would allow us to continue scraping snow and ice build-up. We were able to work every shift during this cold snap due to warmer temperatures above the inversion layer that kept the extreme cold at lower elevations.

Continued Effort

Some of the ice and snow that fell over Christmas still clung to the roads in March, when the sun returned. By June, most of the evidence of Icemageddon 2021 was gone, aside from the dirty remains of a few tenacious snowplow mounds.

Our winter maintenance crews were true heroes during these storms. They met the challenge of one of the most awesome winter events we had ever experienced. Numerous crew members worked 50 12-hour shifts without a day off.

One crew member worked 80 12-hour shifts before finally asking for a break.

To say that our people are dedicated to serving their communities is a gross understatement—some dedicated nearly every waking moment to improving conditions for weeks and even months.

Our contractor partners also went above the call of duty to improve conditions. There were several times during our response that we felt we were near the end of the emergency funds allocated, but our contractors continued working, even with the knowledge that there was a possibility we would not be able to pay them.

Thankfully, that situation never came to fruition, but the mindset of all involved was to put the safety of our friends and neighbors ahead of any monetary considerations.

Moving forward

There were many lessons learned along the way as we worked through the response plan for these unprecedented events. Our National Weather Service partnership proved to be invaluable. Regularly scheduled coordination and event response meetings kept all stakeholders informed of our current and intended workplans.

Blurring traditional maintenance station and district boundaries allowed more flexibility to put resources where they could make the most impact. As always, our team responded with innovations to deliver the best level of service possible under very trying circumstances.

Our communications team proved invaluable, as well. People were hungry for information as they sat stranded at home in the extreme cold, many without power for days. Our communication staff were involved in weather briefings and internal coordination meetings. They were made aware of all response efforts in excruciating detail so they could keep the public appraised and answer questions, allowing our operations staff to focus on managing the event response.

We hope we will never have to face such a unique widespread event any time soon, but we know we are much better prepared after experiencing the events of Icemageddon 2021. R&B

Daniel Schacher is the Northern Region Maintenance and Operations Manager for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

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