Just when Alaska’s largest city was looking all White Christmas, a powerful North Pacific storm slammed into the urban underbelly of the state to start the month of December off with unseasonably warm temperatures, high winds, and, yes, rain.
By evening on Sunday temperatures in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley just north of Anchorage, temperatures were in the 40s. The Palmer airport and Wasilla, the hometown of former Gov. Sarah Palin, were reporting 45 degrees.
Water was running on icy streets in parts of Anchorage, and once again, there were Alaskans pondering the “new norm.”
Since global warming popped into public discussion in the 1980s, climate change models have suggested the northern march of climate zones. Predictions are that Juneau will become more like Seattle, and Anchorage will become more like Juneau.
The New York Times went even further in 2014, quoting a University of Hawaii geography professor saying “the best place (to live) really is Alaska.
“Alaska is going to be the next Florida by the end of the century.”
The might be a prediction too far, but there is no doubt the Alaska of today is a human friendlier place than the Alaska of yesteryear.
In her autobiography “Going Rogue,” Palin wrote about how brutally cold Wasilla was when she was growing up there in the early 1970s. As she told it, Friday nights were spent in the uninsulated and unheated “family room” above the family’s “gravel-floored garage” where she and her siblings “sometimes braved thirty-below temperatures to watch the ‘Brady Bunch,’ huddling together in down sleeping bags, so cold that when Greg, Marcia and the gang finally solved the family problem of the week, we fought over who would have to venture out to change the channel.”
The story might be a little exaggerated, but the early ’70s were cold. Alaska’s Prospect Creek, 180 miles north of Fairbanks, earned the honor of the coldest place in the United States when the thermometer fell to 79.8 degrees below zero on Jan. 23, 1971.
“The period 1949 to 1975 was substantially colder than the period from 1977 to 2014,” the Alaska Climate Center would later observe, “however since 1977 little additional warming has occurred in Alaska with the exception of Barrow and a few other locations.”
Since 2014, of course, Alaska has experienced its warmest year on record – 2016 – and Alaskans have become highly attuned to the idea climate change is on the way. And while the evidence all points in the direction of a warming climate, the much bigger variations in weather are really what attract attention.
Climate change is calculated in single digits. Weather variation is often in double digits. The low temperature in Anchorage on Sunday was 14 degrees above the normal low.
Predicted climate-change temperatures are a fraction of this.
“The global mean surface temperature change for the period 2016–2035 relative to 1986–2005 will likely be in the range of 0.3°C to 0.7°C,” according to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
This equals a Fahrenheit temperature increase of .54 to 1.26 degrees. The average temperature in Anchorage on Sunday ended up 10 degrees above the long-term normal, or eight to 18 times bigger than the predicted climate change shift.
Anchorage might one day have the climate of Juneau, but that’s still a long way off. The new normal is only a few degrees warmer than the old normal, if that. But it’s easy to start thinking otherwise.
Human memory is highly fallible, and we, as humans, have a bad tendency to view things through the prism of what we are conditioned to believe.
Raise your hand if you were Sunday thinking – “Oh crap, another warm and wet December. It seems they’re always like this now.”
Only they aren’t. If you thought that, it was your memory playing tricks on you. Memory is selective.
Last year was the warmest on record in Alaska, but last December, according to the National Weather Service, was actually three degrees colder than a normal December. December 2015 was warmer – 2.5 degrees above normal, according to the climate center, and 2014 was a whopping 7.5 degrees above normal.
Yes, 2011 was the third warmest December on record in Alaska, and 1985 was the warmest on record but in between came the winter of 1989, which Ned Rozell, a writer for the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks described this way:
“For many Alaskans, January 1989 is a month that still numbs the mind, because of the cold snap that gripped much of the state for two weeks.
“In Fairbanks, fan belts under the hoods of cars snapped like pretzels; the ice fog was thick and smothering, and the city came as close as it ever comes to a halt, with many people opting to stay home after their vehicles succumbed to the monster cold.
“The 14 days of bitter cold were not a strictly Fairbanks phenomenon. Every region except the Aleutians and Southeast was nailed by a combination of meteorological quirks that resulted in what some called a good old-fashioned winter.”
One might argue they’re just the top and the bottom of the range on a yo-yo.
Or a pogo stick