By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE (Reuters) - Alaska's record-breaking winter snowstorms have achieved a new milestone -- school closures in Valdez, a snow-tough Prince William Sound port that is on pace to beat its own season snowfall record.
This winter marks the first time in decades that Valdez schools have closed because of snow volumes, city and school district officials said. Potentially dangerous loads of snow on school roofs prompted the closures, which will be in effect until next week, officials said.
"We looked at snow loading and we looked at the need to get the snow off the roof, and it was better to close the school because things were close to that critical point," Mayor Dave Cobb told Reuters.
The last time Valdez schools shut down because of too much snow was in the 1989-90 academic year, although there was a high-wind closure earlier this winter, Valdez School Superintendent Jacob Jensen said.
Valdez, a seaside town famous for big snow dumps each winter, is on pace to break its season record of 560.7 inches, said Bob Hopkins, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service's Anchorage office.
Snowfall to date in Valdez is 321.5 inches, according to city officials, which already matches the season average for a town so used to snow its building code requires roofs to be extra-strong.
"They're so prepared down there," Hopkins said, adding that the town's residents were usually able to shrug off massive amounts of snow. "They're Alaskans, you know."
But now, even hardy Valdez needs some help, Cobb said. The city put out a call for snow shovelers to work at $20 an hour, and the U.S. Coast Guard has sent some of its crewmen to help dig.
Across Prince William Sound in Cordova, schools remained closed for similar snow-load concerns, officials said. Students had been scheduled to return to classes from winter break on Monday, but have not been able to attend school at all since 2012 began.
In Anchorage, a new blizzard was bringing an expected foot or more of new snow on Thursday to Alaska's largest city.
Anchorage was also on pace to break its annual snowfall record, according to the National Weather Service. It had received 88.8 inches as of Thursday afternoon, meteorologist Dave Sticklan said. Anchorage's annual record is 132.8 inches.
Hundreds of miles to the northwest, a Russian ice-class tanker laden with fuel and its Coast Guard icebreaker escort were able to overcome ice problems.
The Renda, the Russian ship that is carrying 1.3 million gallons of gasoline and diesel, and the Healy, the Coast Guard's only functioning polar icebreaker, were about 40 nautical miles south of Nome on Thursday afternoon, Coast Guard spokesman David Mosley said.
That represented roughly 50 miles of travel since Wednesday, when the ships were stalled by tough ice ridges and strong currents.
The Renda is making the fuel delivery to the ice-bound city of 3,600 to make up for an autumn barge delivery that was cancelled for bad weather, including the worst storm to hit northwestern Alaska in decades.
The ice-breaking effort is the first attempt to deliver fuel by sea in winter to a northwestern Alaska community, and Mosley said the ships were coping well with the challenges.
"We've made a bit of progress today," he said, adding that delivery of the fuel could be imminent if sea currents and winds allow. "It all depends on the ice, but it could be tomorrow. It could be Saturday."
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb)