The new normal?

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Near 1,800 feet in the Chugach Front Range on Sunday

The temperature in Anchorage, Alaska on Sunday hit 51 degrees. It was not a new high, but it came close, missing a tie with the historic record by only a degree.

The high was nine degrees above what the National Weather Service calls “normal.” The days low temperature of 42 was even more out of whack. It came in 15 degrees above “normal.”

All of this would be odd but for the fact that after a winter of this sort of unsual warmth,  weird is now normal.

Below is a photo of the end of the road at 1,800 feet taken on May 18 only three years ago:


Compare it to the photo at the top of this story taken in essentially the same exact spot on April 10 of this year. Sort of night and day, isn’t it? Or would that be winter and summer?

The change is so radical you can’t avoid it.

Green grass is sprouting outside the house. Some trees are starting to bud. The snow fell so little and  went so fast there was no normal “break up” with water running in the streets this month.

And there is more than a little discussion about the “new normal” almost everywhere you go.

Climatologists are skeptical. Anyone with any scientific training has to be. The anomaly is the most “normal” thing to be found in the climate record. This 2015-16 winter of no winter could be one big, giant anomaly. So, too, the almost equally mild winter of 2014-15.

But what if it’s not? How do we know?

We don’t. The strange weather Alaska has witnessed this winter is not thought be a direct result of global warming. The temperatures are way above the temperatures predicted in any of the global warming models.

Some people are blaming El Nino, which definitely plays a role. But the real factor is the jet stream. It has increasingly taken to oscillating in a way that blesses or curses Alaska, depending on whether you hate snow or love it.

The Brits started talking about this in 2014, noting as the Independent reported, that “Britain is not the only place to feel this effect.  Alaska this winter has experienced some of the warmest temperatures on record and, for the first time, rain rather than snow has fallen on the northern slopes of the Alaskan mountains in December.”

The British newspaper said Professor Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University in Brunswick, New Jersey, a climate scientist, blamed rising Arctic temperatures which cause the jet stream to slow and to wander off course. The stream is driven by atmospheric temperature differences between tropical waters and polar waters, and it has normally powered  west to east around the northern hemisphere as planet Earth spins its way through space.

Francis theorized that the decline in temperature differences between the equator and the poles  caused the jet stream to flow south to north from the tropics into Alaska reguarly in the winter of 2014-15 and again this winter.

If Francis is right about the arctic connection to the jet stream, the last two winters could indeed be the norm, which is not to say next winter couldn’t be dominated by snow and cold. Even if there is a new norm, we could get an anomoly trending back toward the fridgid, bad old-days.

NWS “normals” are determined not over the course of years but over the course of  decades. This is what makes it so hard, and interesting, to talk about the weather. We could, indeed, be living new norm, but we won’t know for years and years and years.

Or we could just take the word of the New York Times that if this isn’t the new norm, it is at least the precursor of the new norm. The newspapers “Nature in the balance” column in September 2014 predicted that “Portland Will Still Be Cool, but Anchorage May Be the Place to Be.”

Or it will be the place to be if you like Seattle weather.

The New York Times isn’t the only one buying the Anchorage as the new-Seattle projection either.

“Baked Alaska,” headlined just a month ago. “If the Last Frontier is the canary in the climate cold mine, we’re in trouble.

“Last year was Alaska’s warmest on record (true) and the warm weather has continued right on into 2015 (true),” the story reported. “This winter, Anchorage has essentially transformed into a less sunny version of Seattle. (not quite true; the REI mothership store in Seattle dwarfs the local REI outlet). As of March 9, the city has received less than one-third of its normal amount of snow. (true) In its place? Rain. Lots of rain (true).  In fact, schools in the Anchorage area are now more likely to cancel school due to rain and street flooding than cold and snow (hard to determine).”

Whatever  the case, this winter could be the new norm. There is plenty of evidence to indicate that the 49th state was once warm. The climate on the North Slope had to be lush at some point to leave behind the volume of organic matter that eventually became oil.

Yes, oil. It’s “organic.” Chew on that.

We have a pretty good idea of what was in Alaska prehistorically, but the information doesn’t tell us much about what will be. So don’t sell off the cross-country skis quite yet, but do think about lobbying Chugach State Park to start grooming ski trails in Powerline Pass high above the state’s largest city.

There are at least hints Alaskans may need to go higher in the mountains to find winter in future years.










1 reply »

  1. Last time I went up there that road was barricaded with strong signage (not just the usual “use at your own risk” ones that have been up for a while), as they were aggressively marketing it for sale. Is it still possible to use that road for hiking and biking? It’s a great spot.

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