Just when it looked like the old normal was returning to the far north after a couple of winters that left Alaskans wondering if serious winter warming was the new normal, along comes the National Weather Service with a warning.
Another of those powerful storms riding an oscillating jet stream north from the tropics are about to punch the 49th state in the gut.
By Sunday evening, communities along the north Gulf of Alaska coast were already reporting temperatures near or above freezing, and there is rain in the forecast for the coming week.
On the Anchorage Hillside where Saturday temperatures had been below zero, the thermometer was climbing steadily from the three degree mark at 7 a.m. to the 23 degrees mark by 7 p.m. with the forecast calling for the trend to continue.
A “special weather statement” was issued for Anchorage metropolitan area, which includes the state’s largest city and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough communities to the north. This Southcentral Alaska area is home to about 55 percent of the state’s population.
“Above freezing temperatures and rain moving into Southcentral on Monday evening will cause slippery conditions to develop as rain falls on cold-soaked surfaces,” the statement warned. “These conditions will likely continue into Tuesday morning as temperatures remain near or above freezing with continued periods of rain.”
Aside from the “cold-soaked surfaces,” it was looking a lot like a replay of the mild winter of 2014-15 and the even milder winter of 2015-2016 when Anchorage started a string of 14 months with temperatures above normal.
The string ended in December, which was colder than normal. January of 2017 saw a small warming, but that month too ended colder than normal. And February started out the same way only to have the weather service warning that Anchorage could be looking at another round of the new normal in its role as a wetter, darker, slightly cooler Seattle without the nightmarish traffic.
Still, there are big differences between this winter and last in Alaska. For one thing, Anchorage has had plenty of snow and cold. For another, Fairbanks – the state’s second largest city – has returned to its role as an urban ice box.
Temperatures in parts of The Golden Heart City were 40 degrees below zero on Saturday. Temperatures didn’t drop past 30 below all last winter and on Feb. 25, 2016 the temp hit 42 degrees.
That’s a highly unusual plus 42, not the normal minus 42 for Fairbanks in February. The latest blast of warm air to punch into Alaska isn’t expected to carry over the Alaska Range mountains into Fairbanks as happened last year.
The weather service is calling for significant warming with temperatures rising from the 21 degrees below zero Sunday evening into the upper 20s by Tuesday, but temperatures were forecast to peak well below the freezing mark, although the agency did note a “slight chance of some light, freezing rain” Wednesday.
A lot of the warmth of winter 2015-16 was blamed on El Nino, a shift in ocean circulation that pushes warm, surface waters from the tropics north along the West Coast of North America. This year the ocean has been neutral or leaning to La Nina, which is the opposite of El Nino. In a La Nina year, cold waters upwelling from deep in the tropical ocean push north.
“We are in a pretty historic El Niño, which usually correlates to above-normal temperatures across central and eastern Alaska,” Tom Di Liberto wrote by way of explanation last year at Climate.gov. “On top of that, the Aleutian low pressure system, a semi-permanent low that camps out near, you guessed it, the Aleutians during the winter was much stronger than average.
“With counter-clockwise air flow around the low, southeasterly winds brought warm, moist air to Alaska…And one cannot overlook the impact of climate change. According to the National Climate Assessment, over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the country. Average annual temperatures have increased by 3°F with winter temperatures increasing by 6°F.”
Then, too, there was “The Blob,” a huge pool of warm water in the Gulf of Alaska that looked like it might never fade away although it finally did.
Sans “The Blob” and “El Nino,” this year’s pulse of warm air looks to lack the power of the bursts of the last couple winters, which is good news for those in Alaska’s hinterlands.
While Anchorage was to get rain early in the week, the weather service posted a “winter weather advisory” for remote areas north and west of the city. The precipitation there was expected to fall as snow.
The sometimes Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race checkpoint of Skwentna was expected to get 6- to 10-inches of snow over the next couple days with a chance of some rain mixing in late Tuesday afternoon.
By and large that was good news for remote tourism businesses that depend on snowmachine traffic in the winter to survive. They took a big hit when the Iditarod this week announced it was moving the race’s restart north to Fairbanks for the second time in three years because of a shortage of snow in the Alaska Range.
But the Iron Dog, the world’s longest, toughest snowmobile race is still headed up the Iditarod Trail this weekend followed by Iditasport, a loosely organized re-enactment of the first attempt to get Nome on bikes. And the human-powered Iditarod Trail Invitational, which might be challenging the Iditarod for the title of The Last Great Race given the difficulty of racing a fat bike to Nome, starts up the trail from Knik on Feb. 26.
All of those events say they’re a go no matter the weather, and – this being Alaska – if you blink it could change. The last time the Iditarod went to Fairbanks in 2015 because it was too warm and snowless in much of Alaska, mushers got blasted with an extreme cold snap.
That was the year four-time Iditarod champ Lance Mackey, his hands damaged by frostbite in 50-degree-below-zero temperatures, announced “this is it for me.” Minus-50 is almost enough to make any sane person wish for global warming.
The official start of the Iditarod has been moved to Fairbanks where they get to run on frozen rivers much of the way. Really hurt some small communities that rely on it for an economic boost.
Most of the mushers like it from what I’m reading.