Alaska deep freeze


Old man winter/Wikimedia Commons

What a difference a year makes in the far north.

Just as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was releasing a report listing 2016 as the warmest year in Alaska’s 92-year recorded history, Mother Nature was reminding Alaskans of the old days.

Temperatures in the Interior were already pushing 20 degrees below zero on Tuesday and forecast to do nothing but keep going down, down, down.

The outlook for the third week of January has  “the potential to replicate legendary cold snaps of 1989 and 1999 in Fairbanks, with sustained temperatures below minus 40 and little relief for residents in the hills where temperatures are usually warmer,” wrote Sam Friedman at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

As NOAA’s Alaska climate summary pointed out “Alaska’s temperature climate is highly variable.” Those who arrived in the state in just the last 15 years might be unaware.

“Winter temperatures have been above average since 2002,” the NOAA report notes. “This warming coincided with a shift in a climate pattern known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). In the past, during the warm phase of the PDO, there has been increased flow from the south that brings warm air into Alaska during the winter.”

Alaska saw a lot of that last year. An oscillating jet stream regularly sent tropical weather systems – the so-called Pineapple Expresses  – roaring north across the Pacific Ocean from near Hawaii to punch into urban under belly of the 49th state. The state’s largest city at times seemed almost Seattle-like.

The temperature in Fairbanks rose to 36 degrees on January 2 of last year when one of those systems drove all the way across the Alaska Range. These weather patterns have helped to make the 49th state a slightly more habitable place, though the winters remains long and dark.

NOAA reports that “since the 1970s, Alaska has warned by about 2.5 degrees F, compared to about 1.5 degrees F for the contiguous United States as a whole. Most of that warming has occurred in the winter and spring seasons.”

Anyone who lived in Fairbanks the early 1970s knows about how different the weather was then. Temperatures went to 60 degrees below zero in January 1971. The monthly average low that year was 40.7 degrees below zero – the average. The average high came in at minus 22.7.

It was brutal. Hot water thrown into the air at that temperature never hits the ground. It explodes into an instant snow storm of ice crystals. 

The comparables for January 2016? A maximum low of 20 degrees below zero, about three degrees warmer than average January high temperature for 1971. A monthly average low of minus 5.9 – almost 17 degrees warmer than the average high for 1971.

The rest of the 70’s weren’t all that much better to Fairbanks than 1971 either. From 1970 through 1975, the mean average January temperature ranged from a high of 15.5 degrees below zero to a low of minus 31.7 degrees below zero.

That minus-31.7 average for January 1971 was the lowest on records going back to 1949.

The mean for January 2016?  Three-point-six, and  that’s a plus 3.6 not a minus 3.6 – as Alaskan enjoyed a comfortable run of globally warmed weather.

For 14 months from late 2015 through November 2016, Alaska statewide temperatures stayed always above the norm. That ended in December,  and looks almost certain to continue at least through January.

“If the 1989 and 1999 cold snaps are any guide, the temperature is likely to stay cold for a few weeks,” the News-Miner reported.

“‘The main jet stream is going to be way far to the south and we end up being stuck in the backwater,’ (the National Weather Service’s Rick) Thoman said. ‘Often once these cold lows form they meander around, but it takes some larger-scale changes to really boot them out.'”

Welcome to the real Alaska, cheechakoes.

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