Only in Alaska would global warming come as a blessing for the National Park Service.
To join with parks across the country in celebrating the 100th birthday of the federal agency, Denali National Park and Preserve plans a ranger-led bike ride Sunday along what would normally be an icy park road.
Not this year. This year the snow is largely gone and the National Weather Service is forecasting temperatures for the day near 50 degrees, unusually balmy for the normally still-frigid Interior.
Ten years ago, according to the records of the same agency, the temperature at the famous park never got above freezing during the day. But the midday warmth of 30 degrees was still a welcome improvement from an overnight low that dipped a degree below zero.
Not a degree below freezing for those reading in the real world outside of Alaska, but a degree below zero on the Fahrenheit scale. Opponents of the 1867 Alaska Purchase had some reasons for labeling the far north “Seward’s Icebox.”
Whether the label holds into the future remains to be seen.
After an unusually Seattle-like winter in the state’s urban, Southcentral core, some are wondering what’s coming, and a few are complaining. The warm temperatures and lack of snow did play havoc with what is usually world-class, cross-country skiing on the trails in the state’s largest city.
Unfortunately for Anchorage, most of those trails were built not far above sea level in the city and not up in the Front Range Chugach Mountains that provide the dramatic and often snowy backdrop for Alaska’s largest urban outpost.
What the snow line seasonally creeping up into the mountains means for the future nobody really knows. The warm winter of 2015-16 could be the “new normal” or not. Alaska weather is notoriously variable.
At Denali, one of the state’s most visited parks, the temperature on April 17, 1996 — 20 years back from this year’s planned bike ride — hit 50 degrees. And the average high for the date going back to the 1970s appears to be somewhere near 41.
The highest high on record for April 17 came in 21012 when the temperature hit 55 and the overnight low only kissed the freezing mark at 32. It was a much different story in 1948 with a high of 10 and a bone-chilling low of 13 degrees below zero.
So the temperatures forecast for the ride this year are somewhat warmer than normal, but not wildly so.
For those who can’t make the Sunday ride leaving the Teklanika River rest stop at Park Road Mile 29 at 11 a.m.; there’s another planned for April 23. Both are scheduled to go about 10 miles to Igloo Canyon and back. For weaker riders, there a three-mile version with a turnaround in the Igloo Forest.
And who knows, given the way this winter has gone in Alaska, the temperature at Denali could be short-sleeve warm by the 23rd. The record for that date is 58 degrees set in 2008. Sixty degrees would not seem impossible.