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May-June 2009

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Weatherscapes: The Central Alaska Range - Ice-Locked Crown of North America



One of a number of mountainous ranges notable for their weather, the Central Alaska Range doesn’t so much stand apart from other mountainous areas of the globe as “above” them—a result of sheer altitude as well as of distance from the equator. While the peaks of the Himalayas in Asia and the Andes in South America rise thousands of feet higher than the highest peak of the Central Alaska Range, Mount McKinley (Denali), no other mountain rises so high so far from the equator. McKinley and its high siblings, nestled in a complex aggregation of ice and snow in south-central Alaska, seem as if preserved from the most recent ice age, untouched by modern climate. Pure white snow and radiant green and blue ice plastered atop razor-edged rock ridges dominate the views from the floors of many deep glacial valleys in the area. Freshly fallen snow eventually feeds the ice of massive glaciers in the region, squeezed and pushed to lower ground by gravity. The legendary Gulf of Alaska to the south of the range provides the majority of the snow in the range, sending endless waves of moisture-laden storms crashing into the steep topography of these mountains.

While the winter months witness the most severe of the area’s extremes, summer affords some of the most spectacular weather-watching anywhere to those who undertake a journey into the heart of this part of the Alaska Range. And with summer comes long, long days, when sunrises and sunsets last hours, and the Sun casts deep shades of alpenglow onto these high peaks. Some of the most memorable moments come when a clearing storm coincides with a “midnight Sun,” painting the peaks below in deep crimson, then fading to the pallid tones of dusk as the Sun passes below the horizon. 

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