The temperature was 5 degrees high in the Chugach Mountains above Alaska’s largest city on Sunday night and a nasty north wind lashed the land with ice-crystals of snow. In a snowy mountain muskeg above treeline in the dark, the scene looked a lot like the notorious White Mountains of the Iditarod Trail just east of Nome.
So much for the idea of Anchorage becoming the new Seattle any time soon. “Anchorage might be the place to be,” as the New York Times put it in a 2014 story on climate change, but not quite yet.
As the new week began, the most populous city in the least populous state was looking more like the new International Falls, Minn.- the trademarked “Ice Box of the Nation” as if someone would want that trademark.
Anchorage was cold and headed for deep freeze. The National Weather Service was predicting lows down to 5 degrees below zero on Monday night headed toward 20 degrees below zero on Tuesday night and 25 below on Wednesday night.
How unusual is this? The Weather Service says the “normal” low for this time of year in Anchorage is 11 degrees with an average high of 23. Anchorage didn’t come close to reaching that high on Sunday.
Buy a better parka
The return of real winter was a bit of a shock to city residents coming off a string of 14 months with above normal temperatures that ended only in December.
After two winters with a strangely oscillating jet stream that regularly took to flowing south to north, instead of west to east, to pull heat-laden air out of the tropics and punch it into Alaska’s underbelly, some were thinking Anchorage’s new “banana belt” climate might be the new normal.
The idea is not that far-fetched. Dinosaurs once roamed the state’s now ice-encased North Slope.
“Alaska is going to be the next Florida by the end of the century,” according to Camilo Mora, a geography professor at the University of Hawaii and lead author of a “Nature” magazine published study that sparked the New York Times story pitching Anchorage as the climate-change escape.
The end of this century is a long way away. There’s still plenty of time before then to freeze body parts in Alaska. And if the climate does changes change predicted, Alaska might become a better place to live.
As with all change, there are winners and losers.
Whether Anchorage is winning or lose at the moment depends on how you view extreme cold temperatures and snow. A lot of Alaskan’s love the latter, but there’s a significant difference between playing in the snow at 20 degrees and playing in the snow at 20-degrees-below-zero and colder.
At some point past 20-below, snow play evolves into playing the game of survival. Anyone who claims to enjoy temperature or 40- or 50-degrees-below zero is lying to you, or they haven’t spent much time out in those temperatures.
Alaska’s last big cold snap in 2015, for instance, played havoc with the mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. These are tough people accustomed to cold. It still brutalized them, and their dogs.
Here’s rookie musher Ben Harper talking about his frostbitten nose and the frostbitten penises of his dogs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KCQB_qqfgQM
Yes, the cold can do that. It makes global warming seem almost not that bad.
CORRECTION: This story was edited on Jan. 16, 2017 to correct a reference to Alaska as the “least populated” state. That distinction belongs to Wyoming, which has fewer people. Alaska is the “least populous” state; it has far fewer residents per square mile.